by Michael Rechtshaffen
Rated PG, 91 minutes
The ninth book in Jeff Kinney’s graphic novel series becomes the fourth film in the successful big-screen franchise.
After a five-year break, the Heffley family is back in action — although with a completely different cast playing them — in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, the fourth feature taken from Jeff Kinney’s highly relatable series of cartoon novels chronicling the life of a hapless middle schooler.
The hiatus after 2012’s Dog Days effectively aged out original lead Zachary Gordon (now 19), as well as his big brother/tormentor played by Devon Bostick (now 25), and while they were cleaning house, the producers also sent original parents Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris packing. They’re now played by the slightly younger Tom Everett Scott and Alicia Silverstone.
Tellingly, despite the casting overhaul, it’s the same old Wimpy Kid in that it still hasn’t figured out how to make its characters as likeable or knowingly engaging as Kinney’s simple line drawings and text.
But like its predecessors, there’s still sufficient, harmless amusement to be had for kids and their parents in the market for a bonding experience that won’t cause either to wince in prolonged discomfort, although the fan backlash surrounding the extensive recasting (as in, “#NotMyHeffleys”) could put a dent in Fox’s box office prospects.
Although his family is setting out on a big summer road trip to attend his grandmother Meemaw’s 90th birthday party, Greg (Jason Drucker) and his decidedly dim rocker brother Rodrick (Charlie Wright) have plans to make a little detour at the Player’s Expo videogame convention.
Determined to repair the damage done to his reputation by an embarrassing incident taking place at Corny’s Family-Style Restaurant that has gone viral, Greg figures that appearing in gamer Mac Digby’s (Joshua Hoover) next YouTube video would make people forget all about his “Diaper Hand” meme.
Trouble is, mom Susan (Silverstone), on a mission to boost quality family time, has confiscated all electronics devices, replacing them with good-old-fashioned sing-a-longs, word games and a visit to a quaint county fair that yields a take-home prize in the form of a live baby pig.
Needless to say, the cute piglet isn’t the only unexpected bump in the road encountered by the Heffleys, and while the route is a well-traveled one (see also National Lampoon’s Vacation and, more recently, Disney’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), the script, by Kinney and director David Bowers, tosses in enough calamity and obligatory potty humor to keep the engine from sputtering.
By now Bowers, who also directed the last two Wimpy Kid movies, knows how to choreograph the inherent chaos for optimal giggles, even if many of the book’s more satirical elements have been swapped out for broader slapstick.
While on the subject of substitution, the incoming cast is up to the task at hand, with young Drucker capably filling Greg’s trouble-prone shoes, although Wright’s Rodrick comes across as a bit more dumbed down and less bullying than in the Bostick incarnation.
And while Scott and Silverstone are gamely willing to subject themselves to all manner of bodily malfunction and liquid assault, there’s admittedly a void left by the absence of Zahn and Harris, who somehow felt more of a piece with Kinney’s comic strip renderings.