By Joe Hammerschmidt
It’s an apparent cinematic law that for every two or three major potential blockbusters to hit screens during the summer season, studios must churn out a low to mid-budget piece of fluff worthy of making decent kiddie matinee money with younger kids and the one parent who’ll consider “Alien: Covenant” far too scary to endure. Fortunately, 20th Century Fox planned ahead for this eventuality, by taking another page-turn at a franchise once thought faded into obscurity, after a trilogy of somewhat profitable successes.
The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book series, the crown jewels of Jeff Kinney’s literary career were breakout bestsellers, with the lucrative three-film deal only adding to its bankability. Nearly five years since the most recent entry in the franchise, director David Bowers, who previously helmed “Rodrick Rules” and “Dog Days” returns to apply his unique affinity for live actors in impossibly animated situations to a entirely new cast. One could say they tried too hard to seek out kids whose sole purpose was to resemble their predecessors, and not all pare too well by comparison, unable to ignore the obvious hurdles Bowers by waiting.
Greg Heffley (Jason Ian Drucker, replacing Zachary Gordon) is the textbook middle schooler, simply trying to keep a firm foothold on the societal food chain, with multiple comedic mishaps interrupting his flow. Just as he’s ready to let his guard down for a long summer rest period, in the first five minutes, an incident at a kid-friendly eatery/arcade ball pit, accidentally introduces an immediately popular internet meme (#DiaperHands) with him as the target, souring his self-esteem. To make matters worse, parents Frank and Susan (Tom Everett Scott and Alicia Silverstone, not quite the best substitutes for Rachael Harris or Steve Zahn) without much notice, whisk Greg, toddler Manny, and older bro Rodrick (Charlie Wright, subbing for Devon Bostick) on a random cross-country road trip to reconnect with their elusive Mee-maw on her 90th birthday. The only possible silver lining: Greg’s favorite YouTube celebrity, a sentimental statement on the online gaming culture is appearing at a popular midwest gaming expo miles out of the way, with the absent-minded hope his savior could be the one person capable of repairing his broken reputation. And on top of whatever else could go wrong, a random bearded dad (Chris Coppola) with his kids in tow and some mismatched anger problems chase the Heffleys on and off to force an unwanted high-stakes-chase element. Not sure why that was thrown in there, but at least that worked in the film’s favor to begin with.
Per your standard family road trip movie, there’s seemingly too many jokes or gags, so much that the basic plot, one with some deep heartfelt guts, is buried in the foreground, with the audience forced to endure an arsenal of kid-tailored sitcom–esque moments which only strive to distract us from what should otherwise play as an enjoyable family tale, but only concentrates on the real target audience, the youngest; parents, be prepared for many an eye-roll. Kinney, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Bowers and Adam Sztykiel (Due Date) appears to have covered the core of a half-decent life lesson with Greg paddling in shallow waters to rekindle lost self-esteem and improve his chances at fame, with Susan desperate to keep her tech-obsessed family grounded in reality; albeit, a raucously fabricated sense of reality, where communities are more open to adopting pigs as pets, but the gross-out bathroom humor wears out even faster to offset any imbalances.
When the first trailer had dropped, there were many fans who had protested over the cast changes (apparently the hashtag #NotMyRodrick had trended briefly), and rightfully so; in seeing this new group of performances, and had I been more of a fan, I’d follow along. Drucker’s Greg is reflective of the new tone Bowers is aiming for, yet one can’t at least immediately ignore how insulting at times his near lack of originality heads toward, by comparison to Gordon’s more natural approach to the character; ditto for Wright as Rodrick, who shows no passion. Scott, portraying the patriarch, might never be able to shake off the whole Guy Patterson thing; a role he took on early in his career, and had never been the same since. Silverstone, having stayed away from major Hollywood work for several years is the one new actor to easily best her predecessor, showing deep sincerity and realism towards the part with a son of her own; something Harris did not offer in her favor originally.
Not every kid’s movie is perfect, and this is no exception; how the humor is approached will leave parents befuddled, but the smiles come in the journey itself, impossible as it may appear to the uninitiated, with fans finding much to be satisfied about. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t much like Greg Heffley. His goal had always been for self-preservation, to just survive in a world that had never been meant for him, and whenever trying to stand out the efforts just blow up in his face. While there is a stunning inbalance of family bonding and absurdly humorous moments (a notable few did leave great resonance; CGI seagulls attacking a bag of cheese puffs? Impossible yet not plausible), by stepping outside the realm of middle school and into the real world, where growing up does mean growing distant, there is enough to make this “Long Haul” redeemable to some, but not necessarily to all. (C-)
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” opens today at most area theaters; rated PG for some rude humor. 91 minutes.