The hills of Hollywood are littered with failed attempts to turn cartoons into live-action films (remember Howard the Duck? Dick Tracy? Watchmen?). So the odds seemed high that a live-action version of the cartoon-heavy Diary of a Wimpy Kid book would crash and burn, too.
But the Wimpy Kid movie escapes the comic-to-live-action curse, succeeding in reproducing the hilarious tone of the best-selling books from Jeff Kinney. Its casting is perfect, and the script packs in plenty of clever gags — including a riotously funny 1980s classroom film on self-esteem called It's Awesome to Be Me!
A big reason why Wimpy Kid works so well is that it avoids the pitfalls of most other kid movies. The child stars seem more like real kids than actors. The adults seem like actual parents, not simply stereotypes of grown-ups.
The movie stars Zachary Gordon as the Wimpy Kid, Greg Heffley, who's about to enter middle school. His snide and underachieving older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) tells him the key to surviving is to fly under the radar: Don't make eye contact, don't attract attention and never use the bathroom.
Greg then proceeds to violate every one of those rules, because he thinks he knows how to be popular. He joins the wrestling team and the safety patrol, auditions for the school play (Glee fans will love this), and tries out to be the school paper's new cartoonist. But nothing seems to work out right and it only makes middle school worse.
Part of the problem is his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), who doesn't understand the rules for being cool and doesn't care. To Greg's amazement, it's Rowley who winds up becoming super popular.
Fans of Kinney's books (there are four titles so far and a book tied to the movie) will love the clever way the filmmakers incorporated some of the Wimpy Kid cartoons into the movie. (Whenever Greg stops to calculate his popularity, a stick figure drawing zooms up or down on a scale — at one point, descending lower than the freakiest kid in school, Fregley, played by a superb Grayson Russell.)
My husband and sons have read all the books and say it was true to its source material, but we all agreed on a couple problems. One is a new character in the movie who wasn't in the book, a free-spirited school newspaper reporter named Angie (Chloe Grace Moretz). She doesn't do much to help the plot move along, but may have been added so that the movie could appeal to girls. There's also a scene where the usually goofy Rowley gets angry and suddenly begins talking in such terse, to-the-point sentences. You'll wonder when you wandered into an ABC Afterschool Special.
But the movie makes up for those flaws with some truly inspired scenes, including a riotous sequence explaining a middle-school legend called the Cheese Touch and a mother-son dance that will have you gasping in amazement and then rolling on the theater floor, shouting "Zoo-Wee Mama!"
As parents, we all know there are some movies that our kids enjoy and we merely endure. But Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one that will keep you and the kids both laughing.
Sherry Robinson can be reached at (727) 893-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She covers parenting issues and writes for the Whoa, Momma! blog at blogs.tampabay.com/moms.