‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ Review: Animated Reboot Delivers Plenty of Familiar Charms

The perpetual troubles of a prepubescent protagonist are humorously placed at the center of Disney Plus’ “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” After a successful run of four live-action features adapted from Jeff Kinney’s popular book series, director Swinton Scott refurbishes the franchise as an animated feature, and while the wholesome-minded product feels a tad redundant, it establishes its own identity, occasionally improving upon its cinematic predecessor enough to make it a worthwhile watch.

Scrawny, awkward tween Greg Heffley (Brady Noon) has always tried to avoid embarrassment as much as humanly possible, but life has a funny way of continually making him the butt of the joke. He’s currently sweating his social standing, and the bright red diary his mother bought him isn’t helping matters as it looks far less cool than an inconspicuous journal. He’s hoping that chronicling his pre-teen exploits will serve as the basis for a memoir once he becomes rich and famous. Until then, he’s forced to toil away in suburban obscurity with his adorably naive best friend Rowley (Ethan William Childress) as the pair transition from elementary to middle school.

A new school means new rules — something Greg’s concerned about navigating. His antagonistic older brother Rodrick (Hunter Dillon) shares a few insider tips to avoid social-pariah status including a serious warning: Never touch the rotting slice of Swiss cheese that’s permanently affixed to the schoolyard blacktop. Legend says that whoever touches it will carry “the Cheese Touch” until they can pass it on to someone else. It’s been a few years since anyone has gotten the ostracizing cootie-like curse, and students have been anxiously dreading its reappearance. Yet the scariest advice Rodrick gives is that Greg needs to ditch lovable goofball Rowley in order to survive junior high. As Greg mulls this agonizing decision, situations arise, through his own fault, that threaten their friendship’s already precarious balance.

Similar to its 2010 counterpart, this animated reboot amusingly tackles universal aspects of adolescence like first-day jitters, the fleeting nature of popularity, navigating cafeteria social hierarchies and the frustrations of not fitting in. Once again, it shrewdly places the audience in the head and heart of its pint-sized hero, giving voice to young underdogs’ anxieties and getting adults to remember and relate to the growing pains that accompany that tender age. It retains the source material’s spirit and robust themes about self-worth and self-esteem. And, to its benefit, this iteration refashions a few of the narrative constructs and trims many of the superfluous story threads from the antecedent adaptation to focus primarily on the evolution of Greg and Rowley’s friendship.

Better yet, this never condescends to its target audience. Though it skews a tad younger than the middle schoolers portrayed, playing more toward the elementary school set, it captures kids and their parents’ worries with dramatic interest and impact. It helps give children the proper tools to deal with conflict resolution in a compassionate, enlightened manner. Greg’s selfish actions (like disobeying his parents, encouraging Rowley to lie, and putting him and his younger brother Manny in harm’s way for his own self-gain) make for good fodder for lesson learning. It’s funny seeing Greg hoisted with his own petard, which leads to chaos and calamity. The comedy of these situations directly informs his internal and external stakes, feeding into the mounting tension between him and Rowley.

Scott finds an interesting interplay between the prevailing colorful computer animation and Kinney’s hallmark hand-drawn illustration style, the latter of which is utilized during expository anecdotes and asides. The styles co-exist and complement each other. The toon also nicely handles mood shifts within its color story, which subtly transitions in its tonal palette from warmly sunlit during happy times to slightly darker, solemn hues once the story gets into the consequences of Greg’s poor ethical choices. Animators add a frisky aesthetic panache to the proceedings, whether its Greg’s 360-degree spin in Fregley’s home hallway when he’s feeling overwhelmed in new territory, or the first-person angle on Rowley rapidly barreling down a steep hill on a three-wheeled trike. With this notable sense of visual dexterity and stirring sentiments surrounding friendship and individuality that don’t come across as hollow platitudes, the brisk 56-minute feature is yet another noteworthy start to a burgeoning franchise reboot.