There’s a part of me that wants to oversell Thor Freudenthal’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid based solely on how low the bar has been set for children’s movies. The thinking behind what gets greenlit in the world of family entertainment always seems to be that kids will watch just about anything: Throw in some fart jokes and it’s money in the bank.
There are exceptions. For every Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007) that inexplicably makes a fortune, there’s a heap of equally humdrum Tooth Fairys (2009) doing squat. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to take much to make a children’s movie that will fill up multiplexes. So it’s simply a relief to find a family film that doesn’t feel the need to resort to pandering. This isn’t to say Diary of a Wimpy Kid is some high-class affair devoid of base, lowest-common-denominator humor. It’s still a kids’ movie; the occasional bout of bathroom humor is a prerequisite. But at the same time, it’s mixed in with a clever and often amusing approach that’s more adult, while still retaining its playfulness.
Based on Jeff Kinney’s series of illustrated children’s books, the film is told through the diary (though the title character insists it’s a journal) of Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, The Brothers Bloom). The story arc consists of Greg’s first year of middle school and his constant—and ill-advised—attempts at climbing the social ladder. Whether he’s being thwarted by his slacker brother (Devon Bostick, Saw VI) or his dorky and socially inept best friend (Robert Capron, Bride Wars), Greg’s middle-school life is a string of bungled high jinks.
As a concept, it’s serviceable. But what makes the movie work is more its attitude than anything else. Diary of a Wimpy Kid feels more in tune with—while never being quite as strange as—that odd period of off-the-wall kids’ programming that populated television in the early to mid ‘90s, coming off a good bit as spiritual brother to stuff like The Adventures of Pete & Pete or Eerie, Indiana. At the same time, there’s an unexpected undercurrent of pre-teen Woody Allen going on here. There’s something classier about Diary of a Wimpy Kid than the usual family fare, like seventh graders reading Allen Ginsburg. Plus, Greg’s insistence on calling everyone idiots and morons isn’t too far removed from Larry David in Allen’s Whatever Works (2009).
Do not, however, think that the film is going to fly right over the head of its target audience. It still holds onto its inherent goofiness; this is, after all, a movie where a moldy piece of cheese is a major plot point. But it’s the film’s ability to skirt its own screwiness with an understated, underlying—and welcome—intelligence that makes Diary of a Wimpy Kid a nice reprieve as far as family films go. Rated PG for some rude humor and language.