"This is a terrible place," laments one of the protagonists of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a comedy about that infamous ring of hell known as middle school. The condemned are stranded between childhood and adolescence, still awaiting the growth spurt that puberty will bring, dodging bullies, not yet aware of the opposite sex but becoming increasingly conscious of their social standing and public image.
No one yearns to be popular quite so badly as Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), the eponymous narrator, a bright and observant sixth-grader who will try anything to stand out. While some of his friends seemed to grow several inches and facial hair over the summer, Greg remains stranded in boyhood, weighing a puny 75 pounds. He's also prone to public embarrassment caused by his oblivious best pal Rowley (Robert Capron), who doesn't understand why hollering "Hey, you want to come over and play?" at school is no longer acceptable.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid was originally conceived as an online comic, and later as an illustrated novel, by Jeff Kinney, whose stick-figure sketches are incorporated throughout the film. The wise, funny book was as appealing to grown-ups as it was to children, focusing on the awkward phase of childhood when we all feel a little wimpy. The movie, though, is strictly kiddie fare, willing to resort to an extreme close-up of a booger for laughs.
Director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) has a knack for working with young actors: The leads make a likable, engaging team (Capron is particularly good as the rotund, cheerful Rowley), and they are surrounded by a fine ensemble of unknowns, including Grayson Russell as Fregley, the most-freckled and weird kid on the block. Only a miscast Devon Bostick, as Greg's mean older brother, strikes a false note.
The movie sticks close to the incidents of Kinney's book, from a misbegotten night of trick-or-treating to Greg's tryouts for a school production of The Wizard of Oz. The camera is usually set low, at kid's-eye level,and although the production looks astonishingly cheap, (including some of the worst green-screen effects I've ever seen), I doubt its intended audience will mind much. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is an adequate adaptation of Kinney's novel, but no replacement for the real thing. Read the book, then see the movie.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (**1/2 out of ****) opens in South Florida theaters on Friday March 19.