Diary of a Wimpy Kid -- Film Review

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"Diary of a Wimpy Kid" is a likable movie for kids that will make adults chuckle as well because of the movie's key ingredient -- wit. This usually gets left off the To Do list by most filmmakers who aim at young audiences. However, director Thor Freudenthal and multiple writers have retained from their source material -- a "cartoon novel" by Jeff Kinney -- the sly, painfully observant perspective of its pint-sized protagonist. His commentary recalls for most adults our ambivalent memories of middle school, an era over which no one suffers from any nostalgia.

If indeed Kinney's book sold 28 million copies and was translated into 33 languages, then clearly this Fox release has name recognition. So the studio can expect above-average boxoffice results for a PG-rated film. Opening weekend should come in at around $15 million.

Zachary Gordon plays the Wimpy Kid, aka Greg Heffley, who keeps a journal -- don't call it a diary since that's so-o-o-o-o wimpy -- of his middle-school career so that when he is famous he won't have to answer questions about his early years. What he charts is his luckless engagement with a class system more stratified and unyielding than those in medieval times.

It's a world divided among the cool, moronic, bullying and wimpy, where lunchtime seating is rigidly controlled and an invisible list of where one fits in the hierarchy of popularity is carried in every child's head. In his first year, Greg plummets to the bottom of that list.

His problems is that he's conceited, judgmental and error-prone. Plus he's got a friend named Rowley (Robert Capron), who is oversized and seemingly oblivious, if not impervious, to his social standing. Whatever Greg does, Rowley's counteractions will defeat.

Greg's problem don't end there. Greg has an older brother from hell (Devan Bostick), clueless parents (Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris, mostly wasted in negligible roles) and the worst sort of arch-nemesis -- a girl (Laine MacNeill) who can beat him up. Badly.

Then there is the movie's gun ready to go off: A molding slice of cheese, lying all year on the blacktop, that if touched renders that unfortunate student an immediate pariah.

An episodic screenplay by Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah careens from one situation to another to provide an ever escalating series of disappointments for a kid determined win the title of "class favorite" in at least one area of endeavor.

Some running gags run too long, some episodes are less successful than others and many are wholly predictable in terms of outcome. Nevertheless, Freudenthal keeps the pace steady and is surrounded by bright young actors, who are professional enough to pep up even those sequences where the story lags.

All tech contributions are better than expected for this genre. The filmmakers also retains Kinney's mix of cartoons and story by including some of Kinney's drawings at the beginning and interspersed throughout the story.

In his first feature, "Hotel for Dogs," the German-born Freudenthal directed 50 dogs. In this, his second feature, he handles at least as many kids. If nothing else, Freudenthal deserves a W.C. Fields Award for courage under fire.

Opens: March 19 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Fox 2000 presents a Color of Force production