But “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” is also, in spite of those expectedly juvenile moments, surprisingly mature in its treatment of its characters, allowing more adult behavior from protagonist Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, 14 years old and certainly looking appropriate in the role of an eighth-grader) in his relationships with best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron); older brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick); and parents Frank (Steve Zahn) and Susan (Rachael Harris).
Greg has always been displayed as an egotistical and selfish character, but ultimately sympathetic enough that we don’t want him to get in trouble. “Dog Days” takes that likeability a step further, allowing Greg to grow up and take a bit of responsibility for his ridiculousness—certainly a nice thing for parents to see, even if “Dog Days” doesn’t necessarily sync up with Kinney’s original plot. Instead, the film is a combination of Kinney’s third book, “The Last Straw,” and “Dog Days,” with some significant changes. No matter. It moves briskly, and while it’s not flawless or an instant classic, this installment is certainly a step forward for the series as a whole.
Whereas last year’s “Rodrick Rules” was about Greg and Rodrick bonding as brothers while their parents are away, “Dog Days” is about the pair trying to avoid Frank and Susan during their summer vacation. Rodrick wants to sleep, Greg wants to play video games, and neither of those plans is OK with their parents—Frank wishes his sons would spend more time outdoors, playing sports or exploring nature, while Susan hopes to turn her sons onto literature. “Little Women,” anyone?
Naturally, neither Greg nor Rodrick is excited about their parents’ aspirations. So when Greg is invited to their local country club by Rowley (whose family is obviously more wealthy than the Heffleys), he jumps at the opportunity to get out of the house—and can’t believe how nice the place is. The pool is practically deserted, in stark contrast to the overly crowded, urine-filled public pool his family recently visited. Waiters bring Greg and Rowley as many smoothies as they want. And, best of all, Greg’s crush Holly Hills (Peyton List) is teaching tennis at the club, meaning that the increasingly hormonal Heffley can be around Holly whenever he wants. As long as Rowley invites him to the club, that is.
And so begins a series of bad decisions on Greg’s part, each one of which seems to spark off a various subplot. When Rodrick finds out about the country club, he wants to come and attract the attention of Holly’s older sister Heather (Melissa Roxburgh), who couldn’t care less about him. When Greg’s parents wonder why he’s always at the country club, he decides to lie and say he has a job there. And after Rowley’s parents become angry that Greg is encouraging him to break their rules, they try to keep the two apart—embarrassing Greg in a way that finally penetrates his generally self-centered attitude.
The best thing director David Bowers and writers Wallace Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes do with “Dog Days” is allowing Greg to grow up. Now an eighth-grader, Greg is developing romantic feelings, rebelling against his parents, and beginning to understand the financial differences between his family and Rowley’s—and the script is written in such a way that none of these emotional themes is explicitly bashed over your head. For younger kids, Greg’s affection toward Holly is obvious, but it doesn’t go into kissing or anything sexual; much is left unsaid about his crush. But for those who are older, Greg’s subtle jealousy over Rowley’s finances, guilt over disappointing his parents, and desire to make things right again are easily identifiable, empathetic feelings. It won’t be hard for children to understand and associate with what Greg goes through in “Dog Days.”
And shining against Gordon is Zahn, who really steps up in an increased role as father Frank. Zahn has always been likable, from his role in ’90s dramas like “Reality Bites” to the TV show “Friends,” and here he really brings it as Greg’s overly zealous father, who still hopes for a closer relationship with his son. He’s zany and goofy, especially when it comes to physical humor, but still believable and good-natured. With that effective mix, it will be intriguing to see what else Zahn can do with the role in future films.
Those good elements of “Dog Days” don’t mean, however, that it doesn’t feel overloaded sometimes. There are a number of different subplots that seem to only exist for unsavory effects, like the Heffleys getting a dog that ends up being slobbery and somewhat disobedient, or their youngest son, Manny (Connor and Owen Fielding), having a disgusting blanket that is, according to Greg, only held together with raisin and boogers. When there are so many elements packed in, the plot seems a bit overworked. Also exhausting is that some other things about the series, like the frustratingly stereotypical presentation of Indian character Chirag Gupta (Karan Brar), haven’t changed. And interestingly, nearly all the upper-middle-class or wealthy characters in “Dog Days” are shallow and unpleasant, such as Rowley’s unyielding father and Holly’s Paris Hilton-like older sister. Some veiled social commentary, perhaps?
But those flaws aside, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” is a significant step forward for a series whose characters are appropriately aging along with its fans. Although the plot sometimes feels too busy, this latest adaptation offers a nice mix of humor for children and parents alike (older viewers will especially get how a boys’ preparatory school is subtly compared with a fascist dictatorship, Hitler salute and all). We may be approaching the last few weeks of summer, but “Dog Days” makes the best of them.