Walking into "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days," the third film based on Jeff Kinney's popular kids books, I was fully aware that I was far outside the target demographic. However, I was ready to be enchanted back to the days of middle school, when running around in the backyard was king, and jobs and college loans occupied the same part of my mind as jetpacks, hover cars and other futuristic things of myth.
It could be enchanting, but "Dog Days" is anything but. It's manic, forced, predictable, scatterbrained and often times unpleasant. If this is childhood, sign me up for adulthood.
The film follows the zany trials and tribulations of Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), an average eighth grader hoping to enjoy a summer of video games and potato chips (seemingly in a quest to become a childhood obesity statistic). His plans go awry when his father (Steve Zahn, trying very hard to make the movie watchable) turns off the games for the summer, forcing Greg to become a Wilderness Explorer (similar to "Moonrise Kingdom"'s Khaki Scouts) and join him in Civil War reenactments.
He finds a solution when his dorky but big-hearted best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron), invites him to the country club. Enamored with the relaxed, high-class setting, as well as the friendly girl who teaches tennis (Peyton List), he goes every day to the club under the guise to his dad that he has a job there. Things get even more complicated, though, when his wannabe rocker older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) wants in on the club.
There's much more in "Dog Days"' overstuffed screenplay involving a new dog, a militaristic prep school, obnoxious neighbors and a trip to the boardwalk with Rowley and his clingy parents. It's all very attention-deficit, cramming in numerous wacky plot elements, most of them solely existing for predictable jokes that were met in my screening with interminable silence.
Some of the storylines could've made for decent movies on their own. For instance, the plotline involving Greg becoming a Wilderness Explorer with his dad could've been the focus. Instead, it's there for one scene, forgotten for about 30 minutes and then brought back when the screenplay needs another forced comic set piece or ill-fated attempt at wringing unearned emotion.
As with the previous two films, "Dog Days" is shot for maximum wackiness and minimum attention spans. Returning director David Bowers (the first film's director, Thor Freudenthal, moved on to do the next "Percy Jackson" movie) never finds a way to tie the various plot elements together, but he finds plenty of ways to throw in hand-drawn cartoons reminiscent of the original books' artwork.
Bowers doesn't have much of a way with the kid actors either. Most of their lines are strained, which is at least in theme with the rest of the film's comedic attempts. The first movie had Chloe Grace Moretz, who left the series for big roles in "Kick-Ass," "Let Me In" and "Hugo." Her on-camera ease would've been nice to have here.
Some may argue that I'm being too hard on "Dog Days." "It's a film for kids; what did you expect?" is the familiar cry. What does that say about how we think about kids, though? I'm not saying they need to watch "Citizen Kane," but they deserve well-made movies that at least understand a proper sight gag.
Or at least provide a decent role model. I'm astounded how unlikeable Greg is as a character. He's lazy and wildly selfish, taking advantage of his friend's unbridled kindness. His trip with Rowley's family ends with Greg insulting the entire clan and getting the dad arrested by the police. Later in the film, he runs up the family's bill sneaking into the country club. What part of this behavior is charming?
The movie doesn't make him apologize either; instead, it's Rowley who says sorry when he comes up with a lie in order to avoid hanging out with the rude, self-centered Greg.
In "Dog Days'" lone earnest moment, Rowley astutely explains that his parents' disappointment is worse than their yelling. In that case, I'm not angry that a movie like this can take the joys of childhood and make them so joyless and unpleasant. I'm disappointed.
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