It’s never an easy thing to see something you enjoyed as a child turned into something you hardly recognize. It’s like growing up and reading DC comics and watching the animated series and then watching the monstrosities Zack Snyder calls films. Or having your favorite animated Disney film turned into an unnecessary, live-action debacle complete with auto-tune and A-list based casting. I was already too old when the first “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” came out, but I remember my younger brother loved the series because of the relatability and humor of the character. Somewhere along the way, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul must have misplaced the charm and humor that made the book series so popular.
I know for a fact that this franchise has turned into something my brother would be ashamed to say he identified with. Not because he thinks it’s juvenile, but because it has strayed so far from the underdog tale in both technique and comedy. The joke landings have become as sloppy as the subjects (usually poop-related) they are about. The key to telling an effective joke relies just as much on the content of the joke as it does on its timing. The writer of the source material, Jeff Kinney, tries his hand on this latest sequel in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid film franchise. Together with co-writer/director David Bowers, Kinney attempts to bring to life his work, but it will take a lot more than novice screenwriters to bring this limp franchise to life.
Aside from continuing the adventures of Greg Heffley, AKA Wimpy Kid, this story falls into every dirty trope a road trip has to offer. Every story point invokes the power of Murphy’s law by having some of the most preposterously improbable things (again, much of it poop-related) happen as if they were an everyday occurrence. This ends up being good for a chuckle or two, especially if you’re a child with your age in the single digits.
The entire story was surprisingly lax on jokes, trying instead to deliver on physical comedy or situational humor, the latter of which tends to go over the heads of the younger demographic. The few enjoyable moments in the film involved a Spice Girls sing-along and a surprisingly faithful homage to the iconic shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, both of which went so far over the heads of the children that they ended up landing on the moon. Still, it should be considered an improvement since it was one of the few jokes that did make a landing of any kind. A central part of the film as a whole that never even successfully took off is the disruptive framing device.
Throughout the film, separate scene storytelling is used by Greg to tell us what he is feeling or to deliver a foreboding message about some outrageous accident that is coming up soon. Not only is it a complete bother, but it is also unnecessary for this film. One of the most important parts of adapting a novel into a film is altering elements that work when you read the story, but don’t work in a visual storytelling platform. Most films succeed without this kind of narration because instead of underestimating the audience and feeding them the information, films tend to rise up to the challenge and weave the information into the story or by using the characters as a conduit. The framing device in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul not only takes you out of the film but also showcases how hokey the story is and how underwhelming the performances and characters truly are. Let’s not forget to mention how much more suited this franchise would be as a sitcom on Nickelodeon.
This sequel features a completely new cast from the previous three films, but that doesn’t mean the change was for the better. Jason Drucker doesn’t quite deliver as Greg, but mostly because the script never gives him a chance to deliver a natural performance between the narration and the forced campy essence. The character development must have happened somewhere in the previous films because we are mostly thrown into this one having to know who everyone is and what their defining, exaggerated characteristic is. One of the flattest attempts at humor comes at the expense if every character. That means Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, and Charlie Wright each are undermined by the film and it forces them to channel a high-functioning level of stupidity just to try and turn their undeveloped characters into walking jokes. It only works once or twice in the film, making the runtime seem much longer than 90 minutes.