"You are so dead." Words that will strike a chord with any middle-schooler who has run afoul of a bully or a big brother. A quickie sequel to a film released only last year, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules surprisingly improves on its predecessor.
Based on Jeff Kinney's illustrated novel of the same name (but also incorporating elements from third novel Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw), the new film benefits from a more thematically cohesive script and presumably also from the new director, David Bowers (Flushed Away). Bowers tips his hat to his animated roots in an opening that finds Kinney's penciled caricatures turn into the actors; otherwise, the style remains fairly consistent with the first film, and the script reasonably faithful to the book, so fans will stay happy.
Pint-sized diarist Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) returns to Westmore Middle School as a proud seventh grader. Naturally, his pride doesn't last long, as the franchise runs on indignities (and the occasional gross-out). Throwing Greg off-balance is cute transfer student Holly Hills (Peyton List), who gives Greg a yet more compelling reason to try to be cool. As ever, Greg's guileless best friend Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron) remains clueless to coolness, but the larger threat comes from Greg's big brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick of Adoration). As Greg puts it, "Rodrick is the king of laziness, except when it comes to torturing me."
Rodrick is something of an archetype of the foul teenager, cleaned up for the tween set. Dimwitted and mean, he lives only for his band, Löded Diper, donning eyeliner to rock out on the drums. Having pinned his dreams on Plainview's citywide talent competition, Rodrick can't be bothered to play nice with Greg. But their columnist mother (Rachael Harris) intently pushes them together, lamely bribing them with "Mom Bucks." At first, Rodrick won't let up, but before long, the brothers find themselves in a symbiotic tangle: after they're left alone for a weekend, they must work together to cover up the evidence of a "wild" party.
I say "wild" because Diary of a Wimpy Kid remains resolutely and blandly innocent, with Plainview a kind of kiddie-cable-sitcom, time-warp fantasyland. Reality dictates that illicit teen parties involve more than chugging soda, and that junior-high kids wanting sneakily to watch a DVD probably aren't watching the equivalent of a 1970s Hammer horror film (though the latter allows for an amusing spoof). The boys' first stirrings of puberty haven't graduated to curiosity about sex, and Rodrick's idea of pranking strangers is to put fake vomit on their cars.
On the other hand, Rodrick's "rules" credibly include coaching Greg to cheat and lie ("Deny, deny, deny..."), and some junior-high horrors never change: Greg faces the waking equivalent of the old "wearing just underwear in public" dream. Despite being affectionately mocked (by Harris and an especially funny Steve Zahn), parents will appreciate the relative virtue of Kinney's vision, which may help to hold the line of childhood innocence a bit longer. And the kids will plotz for the poop jokes.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]