By Robert Mann.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules ***½
Considering that, as the title suggests, they revolve around a rather wimpy lead character, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid films have to date proven surprisingly mighty, their opening weekends at the US box office, where the first film beat up romantic action comedy The Bounty Hunter on its opening weekend and the second one – which was released there in March but is only now getting its UK release – well, sucker punched Sucker Punch on its first weekend, exemplifying this – how often is it that you get to say that two major Hollywood movies have been completely pulverised and totally embarrassed by a little film that, for all intensive purposes, should never have posed any kind of threat to them?
Admittedly, the UK box office performance for the first film was poor at best but Diary of a Wimpy Kid nonetheless received a warm reception from many of those who did see it upon its release over here and interest in sequel Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules seems to be considerably greater as a result – even though in America interest seems to have dropped off somewhat since the first film, this sequel proving less successful there. Based on the book of the same name, the second in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by American author and cartoonist Jeff Kinney which currently consists of five volumes, with a sixth scheduled for release in November of this year – other volumes that may get adapted for the screen at some point in the future including The Last Straw, Dog Days and The Ugly Truth – the commercial success of the film was practically a given considering the significant built in audience that exists in the form of fans of the books but, following the lower box office numbers, is a critical reception that also falls somewhat short of that of the first film, the reaction from critics generally being that this is a follow up that is not as good as its predecessor.
This is despite that fact that most of the original characters are returning with the same actors once again playing the roles and original screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah have returned along with them. That said, though, original director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) has been replaced by director David Bowers, who previously helmed the CG animated features Flushed Away and Astro Boy and who is making his live action directorial debut on this film, and the transition from animation to live action directing is not always a smooth one. So, how does Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules compare to the original film and more importantly how does it stand up on its own terms? Does it follow the example of its box office performance in being a mighty sequel that really stands out from the crowd or rather does it disappoint as an effort that proves, well shall I say, wimpy?
He may only just be starting his second year at middle school but tweenie Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is already finding the embarrassment and misery that he endured in his first year catching up with him. Caught right in the middle between his nasty older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) and his mischievous baby brother Manny (Connor and Owen Fielding) and with even his parents Susan (Rachael Harris) and Frank (Steve Zahn) being as embarrassing as ever, it doesn’t seem like Greg’s life can possibly get any worse but as his rivalry with Rodrick reaches whole new heights he finds himself facing his biggest life challenge to date – being nice to his big brother. Susan has decided to deal with Greg and Rodrick’s constant arguments by offering them cash to get along and to help them bond she and Frank go away for the weekend, leaving Rodrick in charge. Naturally, he throws a huge house party and locks Greg in the basement. Upon the return of their parents, however, they realise that, if either of them comes clean about the fact that they had a party, they will both be in big trouble – that and Rodrick really wants to keep getting mom bucks for good behaviour.
Hence, a truce of sorts is formed between them and for the first time ever they find themselves being nice to one another. As Rodrick’s band Loded Diper prepares to perform at an upcoming talent show along with their new member Bill (Fran Kranz), Greg and best friend Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron) also set out to achieve stardom, Greg’s idea being to become internet sensations by putting a video on YouTube while Rowley is more interested in preparing his magic act for the talent show. Meanwhile, Greg has taken a liking to new girl Holly Hills (Peyton List) and tries to win her over but finds his attempts to win her over failing, even with the advice being given to him by newly non nasty brother, and it certainly doesn’t help that she thinks he is the disgusting and gross Fregley (Grayson Russell)! If that wasn’t bad enough Greg also has to face the wrath of bad girl Patty Farrell (Laine MacNeil) and finds himself with a new nemesis in the form of Chirag Gupta (Karan Brar). Can Greg overcome all the obstacles that his second year of middle school is throwing at him to win the heart of Holly? And can he and Rodrick maintain their truce long enough to make it to the talent show?
The first Diary of a Wimpy Kid was one of those films that I went to see with very low expectations but was subsequently very pleasantly surprised by how good it actually turned out to be. So, my expectations for the sequel were understandably higher, something that makes Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules a bit of a disappointment by comparison, if only slightly so. Much of the blame for this seems to belong to director David Bowers whose direction is considerably less effective than Thor Freudenthal’s was in the first film. As a sequel, this is a film that fails to fully recapture the charm of its predecessor and also feels somehow less smart than that film. It might be easy to blame the writers but generally the writing in this film, which is by the same people as the first film, seems to be on pretty much the same level as it was in that film – even if, perhaps, the book it is based on doesn’t necessarily offer such rich material to work with as the first book did.
Sure, there isn’t a lot of plot to speak of but there wasn’t that much in the first film either. Generally speaking, the storyline here is perfectly sufficient for the needs of the film, the dialogue is good also and the character development also proves sufficient, even though the characters do often come across a bit like caricatures. Where the film succeeds the most is in the way it embraces its innate childishness, this in fact being where most of the charm and humour come from. The embarrassing situations that many children might find themselves in from time to time and that Greg Heffley finds himself in a lot provide much of the focus and these embarrassing situations are ones that you will probably feel like you shouldn’t laugh at but likely will. Such things as Rowley lip syncing to Ke$ha’s TiK ToK for a YouTube video, Greg and Rowley watching the lamest horror movie ever in the form of ‘The Foot’, a hilarious magic performance at the talent show and Greg’s mom embarrassing him with her dancing provide plenty to laugh at and fans of the first film might also be inspired to giggle slightly by a little in-joke in the form of the spot where “the cheese” used to be.
Unfortunately, while the humour is often pretty funny but it is also often rather cringe worthy and it never seems as witty as that in the first film. The result is something that is funny but creates a sense that it could be so much funnier. Despite the film not living up to its full potential in the humour department, however, it still proves very successful in the manner in which it offers a child’s outlook on life in middle school and the world in general. Everything we see here is from Greg’s perspective, us being given insights into the way he think through the portrayal of his fantasies about ways in which his life might be better and, just like in the first film, animated segments being interspersed throughout, representing the illustrations in Greg’s diary and helping to ground the film in his perspective. The caricature style cartoons once again have a very appropriate look and style and the incorporation of the drawings into some of the live action segments here is seamless and effective – for instance, in the film’s opening scene, the Heffley family car pulls up with cartoon versions of the characters inside before they get out and transform into their live action selves, something which is very well executed and is a good visual flourish.
With a variety of colourful and entertaining characters to play, the actors here do a pretty good job. Zachary Gordon is a believably wimpy lead, making Greg a likable character but also one who is not particularly strong willed, making the way he constantly falls victim to Rodrick, portrayed with an appropriate level of nastiness by Devon Bostick, and Manny, portrayed perfectly mischievously by Connor and Owen Fielding, and is repeatedly embarrassed by his parents, very embarrassingly portrayed by Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn, all the more believable – you’ve really got to feel for Greg as his life is being made miserable by his brothers and even his parents at times. Playing a character who holds an understanding of Greg’s situation with his brothers, having experienced the same thing herself with her two sisters, Peyton List is a real cutie and a very good object of affection for Greg. It’s a shame though that she and Greg are not explored as a couple – but maybe that’s something a later chapter from the diary. As Greg’s friends and classmates, Robert Capron perfectly makes uncool not seem so uncool, Karan Brar delivers a very confident performance as a character who is very over confident, Grayson Russell is as childishly gross as ever and Laine MacNeil once again convinces as the tough girl but also gets a chance to show a believable other side to her character.
Sadly, the absence of Chloë Grace Moretz who stole the show in the first film is greatly felt here, her loss being another reason why this sequel is lagging behind the first film. All in all, Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules is funny and heart-warming with a sweetness that wins out in the end but it never recaptures the magic of the first film and really is a tad too cringe worthy at times, so much so that it might be slightly embarrassing just to be seen watching it. So, a decent film in its own right then but, as a follow up, it is a slightly wimpy one.
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