I've always loved the middle school and high school genre of films. There's a magic in those pre-teen and early teen years that lends itself to comedy, drama, and romance. But I've found that it's usually a genre best played out over the course of a TV series instead of in two-hour blocks in the theater. The weekly visits of a TV program lets the viewer get to know the nuances of friendships and relationships with parents. It's also the best way to draw out the arc of teenage love. Shows like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, and even Buffy The Vampire Slayer have used that as a strength - letting the characters develop over the span of multiple episodes. The Disney Channel has found just the right formula for the teen sitcom. Their collection of shows over the past decade haven't varied too far from the central theme of a small group of friends - buffoonish parents - buffoonish minor characters - and main characters with outlandish adventures. It's been this formula that's kept Lizzie McGuire, That's So Raven, Hannah Montana, and Wizards Of Waverly Place among many going strong for so many years. Even Nick found the same success with iCarly.
Jeff Kinney capitalized on the popularity of those shows by writing a series of books that started in 2007. The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series of books were the anti-Harry Potter. They told a story of a very normal, non-magic, non-TV show hosting group of middle schoolers. The books are in a diary format that combines text and drawings making it easy to read for even elementary-aged children. The books have the same sense of humor that I recall from the Judy Blume books of my youth. The 2010 movie of the first book in the series established the film version of this Wimpy Kid Universe. The film introduces us to the characters - Greg (Zachary Gordon), our narrator and main character, Rodrick (Devon Bostick), his cruel yet lazy older brother, and his mother and father (Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn). Most of the film takes place in the school with his group of friends: best friend Rowley; Fregley, the weirdest kid in school; Chirag Gupta; and his nemesis, Patty Farrell. The film takes place throughout the course of the school year and revolves around some curse called The Cheese Touch.
The minor success of the movie and the continued success of the books led to a 2011 sequel - Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. The film just released on DVD and Blu-ray is an interesting evolution in the series. The film picks up at the beginning of the next school year. Greg and his friends will be entering seventh grade. Greg, Rowley, Fregley, and Chirag are all reunited in the initial scene at a roller rink. The scene is a perfect reintroduction of the characters but doesn't dwell on restablishing their backstory. The kids are broad enough stereotypes that rehashing the first film isn't necessary. We quickly are introduced to the new girl, Holly Hills (played by Peyton R. List), who will serve as the catalyst for the rest of the film. Greg is instantly in love and will pursue her through the film. The scene ends with Greg's dad having to carry him off the rink - making him even more of a "wimpy kid".
It's an important change of mood in this first scene from the initial film. That film was all about starting middle school and the adventures of the school. This scene in the skating rink sets up the family dynamic and takes the story outside of school. In fact, very little of the important action of the movie will take place in school. Other than Greg trying to win over Holly, the main story is the relationship between Greg and Rodrick. Their mother is concerned about the constant fight among the two older boys and sets up the concept of "Mom Bucks" that can be earned for getting along and later turned in for real money. The boys are doing well until Rodrick pulls a prank on Greg - getting him to sit on a melted 3 Musketeers bar right before they go into church. In one of the funniest scenes in the movie - as his stained pants are revealed - the boys break into a fight in the middle of church. This turning point in the film is juvenille humor but it's still universally funny.
The boys punishment is to stay home while the parents and youngest brother, Manny, go on the preplanned vacation. Of course, this leads to a party and the mayhem that usually ensues with such parties. This middle portion of the film really seemed to drag. The "parents are away" party scenes have been done so many times - in film and TV - that there's the feeling of a real pressure to try to do something different. And yet, what they come up with is part Risky Business and bits of every TV show of the past two decades. The only thing the party accomplishes is to throw us into the final act of the film. The boys journey towards friendship has begun over their bond to not let their parent's discover that they had a party. There's even a fun montage scene (those still exist!) when Rodrick and Greg have a fun night out together - it involves fake vomit, brain freeze, and being chased by Coach Malone.
The bump in their journey to friendship comes as their parent's discover the party and sentence them to spend time with their grandfather. The scenes at the retirement home his grandfather lives in are also painfully awkward. Greg finally finds a common ground with Holly but it almost all falls apart when his diary is stolen by Rodrick. The chase scene as Greg recovers the diary is typical of any tween TV show on Friday nights right now. It serves only to make Zachary Gordon's Greg more pathetic than wimpy. But most of this is quickly forgotten (which makes it seem even more filler) as we head towards the Talent Show.
The film ends with Greg making some important decisions about family and friendship. He does not ultimately take the wimpy way out but shows a little maturity. It's not a touching or emotional decision but it does bring nice closure to the stories of Greg and Holly and the friendship of Greg and Rodrick (or lack thereof). The film ends with a bookend of what are the two lasting images I have of the film. Early in the film - Rowley lip synchs to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" and at the end of the film - Greg's mom does some crazy dancing to Rodrick's band. Both videos are uploaded to YouTube with differing success.
There's a huge change in tone and structure from one film to the next. I think the long-term success of this series will be learning to blend the two. There wasn't nearly enough scenes in the school. It's weird to spend one whole movie setting up the characters in the school and all the crazy adventures that could happen there and not pursue them more in the sequel. The rivalry with Patty appears in the very beginning and at the end but is too ignored throughout the film. But I liked seeing more of Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn. Their characters only feel slightly more fleshed out but enough so that they need to continue to be developed in future films. And there's a need to figure out where to go with Zachary Gordon as Greg. Zach has a bit of Malcolm In The Middle about him. One minute he's being embarrassed and made to be the butt of jokes and then through the narration mainly, he's very cocky. There's a disconnect with his look versus his character. He seems like he should be the popular kid. I think the best scene for what I'd like to see was one of the extras - the "My Summer Vacation" short where Greg is caught by the neighbors when he messes up the dog sitting. It's a perfect example of him taking the wimpy way out of a situation and it turning out awkward and bad for him. Think of Greg as a young version of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The Blu-ray comes in a combo pack with a DVD and a Digital Copy of the film. The 5.1 audio transfer comes in handy for the entertaining and eclectic soundtrack. As mentioned the shorts entitled "My Summer Vacation" are a nice intro to the characters and should almost be watched before the film. The deleted scenes don't add much to the enjoyment of the film. Nor does the gag reel and alternate ending. The commentary is interesting but doesn't address the overall arc of the stories and where it needs to go to become a successful franchise. And I don't doubt that it will be successful in future films. There are too many fans of the books out there to let this end here. I just hope the next diary is one that finds a niche that will take it through all of the books.