A Review of Disney’s Animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid Movie

Well, those are two logos I never necessarily asked to see together. Like ever.

Yeah, I know it’s been quite some time since my last post. Let’s just say that despite being a college graduate, I’m still quite busy working on launching my career and focusing more on my personal projects. But I figured that if I’m going to discuss anything these days, it might as well be the new animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid reboot film that was recently released on Disney+, since I’m sure you’re probably curious about my thoughts. (And yes, I signed a deal with the devil finally have a Disney+ subscription. And well…it’s not that bad, I’ll admit.)

Long story short? The movie was…fine. But “fine” is a whole lot better than the Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul film, which is all this film really needed to do to succeed. And with Jeff Kinney announcing a sequel adaptation of Rodrick Rules for next year, as well as plans to adapt every book in the series into sequels, the Diary of a Wimpy Revival is looking very bright. Quite a bit has happened since my last post about the Revival, so let’s start diving into Greg Heffley’s latest misadventure!

The Late Developments

In September 2021, Disney made several announcements for the animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid film. These included the reveal of a teaser poster, a December 3 release, the confirmation that it would adapt the first book, and a reprint of the original book featuring Greg’s 3-D animated model on the cover, as well as the reveal of Rowley’s model, which was released on November 23. Brady Noon, Ethan William Childress and Chris Diamantopoulos were also announced as cast members, though their roles were not immediately revealed. Swinton Scott was also announced as the director, who has had experience in both children’s and adult animation. But perhaps the most interesting announcement was the confirmation that Jeff Kinney was not only in fact involved but was returning to write the screenplay. While this was pretty expected, I still had my concerns since he wrote the screenplay to Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul. Thankfully, this movie has proven that he does in fact have decent screenwriting skills. The film’s synopsis was also revealed, which was pretty much in line with the synopsis of the first book:

Greg Heffley is a scrawny but ambitious kid with an active imagination and big plans to be rich and famous — he just has to survive middle school first. To make matters worse, Greg’s lovable best friend Rowley seems to coast through life and succeed at everything without even trying! As details of his hilarious — and often disastrous — attempts to fit in fill the pages of his journal, Greg learns to appreciate true friends and the satisfaction that comes from standing up for what is right.

By October, the first trailer for the film was released, officially revealing the 3-D animated models of most of the film’s other characters. Noon, Childress and Diamantopoulos were also confirmed to be playing Greg, Rowley and Frank respectively, with the other cast members being gradually revealed in the days afterward. Kinney later confirmed that sequels to the film were in development, before announcing a sequel adaptation of Rodrick Rules for 2022 in November. This went against my idea to skip that book for a true Last Straw adaptation as I explained in my previous post about the Revival. The fact that more than one sequel to the film was confirmed seemed to have made a third film adapting The Last Straw certain anyway, with adaptations of later books slightly less certain at the time.

In an interview Kinney had the day before the film was released, he revealed that the film started development at 20th Century Studios as a 20th Century Animation film, before it was moved to the Walt Disney Pictures banner during production. While I obviously would’ve preferred it staying under the 20th Century banner, Kinney seemed happy to be working with Disney at least in the interview, so there’s that. Kinney also revealed the reason why he used 3-D animation despite the books’ hand-drawn-style illustrations, which I think presented itself better for a feature-length film:

I wanted you to feel like the books had come to life. And that’s exactly what I think we’ve gotten out of this movie. It’s really cool to see this 2D character translate into 3D. And I wasn’t sure if it would work. It’s a little weird, always, to see something change — mediums like that. But we worked at it for a long time. We have a great animation company called Bardel out in Vancouver. They know what they’re doing and they really brought this world to life.

The day the film was released, Kinney also revealed plans to adapt every book in the series into sequels. While it now made sense why they weren’t going to skip books in the series, it put into question the idea of, as of this writing, a sixteen-film series, with that number to be inevitably higher once a potential adaptation of The Big Shot is made. It makes you wonder if a television series was the better route to take, but I guess I can’t complain about Diary of a Wimpy Kid content being released over an ultimately longer time span, especially if we get a Poptropica adaptation within that time. And yes, I will keep mentioning this until it happens. 😉

Are Those Character Designs Really That Bad?

You’ve seen front-facing Greg Heffley before. Let’s not pretend you haven’t.

Before I discuss the film itself, I really want to talk about the character designs, which was the real deal breaker for the fanbase since the franchise had never been 3-D animated before. Somehow, though, it seems Scott and Kinney nailed it, for the most part, anyway. With Greg, the biggest challenge was depicting him as front-faced in a way that didn’t come off as jarring, given that Kinney always draws him from side-to-side in the books. Luckily, there was a precedent in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, with his design in the film being just about the same. Keeping his clothes in black and white is fitting for the main character in a series with black and white hand-drawn-style illustrations, with his backpack being the same color as the cover to the book the film is adapting, which adds a nice touch of color to his color palette.

Rowley’s design proved to be a bit more difficult. His head appears round compared to its more rectangular shape in the books, while the less hair he has compared to his live-action counterparts accentuates the shape. Realistically speaking, the rounded head does make sense, while the smaller hair emphasizes the seven hairs he is drawn with in the books, so I think it’s pretty fine. Fregley’s design, however, proved to be even more difficult. I think it has to do with the fact that his glasses block much of his strangely shaped head in the books, so when his glasses were made transparent, it really brought attention to the shape. Also worth noting is that the lenses of his glasses don’t make his eyes bigger, though there are moments in the movie when they briefly grow. Overall, it’s just okay to me.

While I’m still talking about these three designs in particular, I might as well mention these Diary of a Wimpy Kid mini action figures of Greg, Rowley and Fregley from Funko that I probably bought around 2011, which I’ve been giving renewed attention to in light of this movie. They are 3-D depictions of these characters that long predate the film, so staring at these figures for years might be why I was not as initially appalled at these designs as some other people may have been, and they are what I am judging the designs off of. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, you can see these images of the figures online as well as the ones I own below:

As for the other characters, Rodrick’s design is mostly fine, except probably the back of his head, where his hair strictly ends after his ears. While it comes off a bit odd, this is also the case in the books, so I give it a pass. But the character whose design proved to be the most difficult was definitely Manny. Even I have had difficulty designing Manny in a different way in the past. Yes, for the sake of this post, I am disclosing the identity of the drawing in my Drawing Children’s Book Characters in My Art Style series I was receiving negative criticism for before I cured my Same Face Syndrome. This is perhaps a testament to how oddly designed Manny truly is. Personally, I think the design is as good as you can get Manny to look in 3-D, though if I had to change it, maybe a shorter snout would work. Maybe.

There’s really nothing to say about Frank’s design, which is fine, but I do have a couple things to say about Susan. Unlike the books, her glasses are transparent which makes her eyes visible, though this decision helped to add detail to her design in this medium and show her facial expressions better. Her glasses being slightly less transparent than Fregley’s perhaps references their depiction in the books. I also didn’t think the curl at the end of her hair was there until later in the movie when I realized it’s only visible at certain angles. Chirag’s nose doesn’t look too big, and his hair looks pretty full while still appearing small, which resulted in a pretty good design.

As for general design features, I thought it was neat how they slanted the characters’ eyes to evoke facial expressions, rather than rely on their eyebrows like the books do. They instead used them to show the really dynamic facial expressions, and they were more detailed compared to the books when they did appear. I just wished we got to see the widened, more detailed eyes that Kinney draws in the books, though there’s a chance we’ll see them in the sequels. I also really liked how detailed they made many of the characters’ shoes, which you don’t really see too much of in the books.

It’s Not a Diary, It’s A Pretty Fine Movie (For Its Length)

Just like I did for The Grinch and Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, I’m only going to give minor spoilers of the movie, as I mainly want to discuss the things about the film that worked and didn’t work, particularly what made it an improvement over the Long Haul film. The film begins with Disney obnoxiously pointing out they own everything 2D animations of the books’ illustrations, which I was pleased to have correctly predicted. Greg and Rowley then play with the Big Wheel when Greg recovers his football from Fregley. As it should be, Fregley delivers the only real bathroom humor in the movie, a much-appreciated contrast from the Long Haul film.

The 2D animations aren’t as frequent as they are in the live-action films, but they are more diverse, such as the rare time we see Rodrick’s own art style as he explains middle school and the Cheese Touch to Greg. The coffee cup ring on the paper in that scene is a neat little detail evoking Rodrick’s sloppiness. Unfortunately, this is also the bulk of Rodrick’s screentime in the movie, which is a shame considering that many consider Devon Bostick’s performance as the character to be the best in the live-action trilogy. I also didn’t expect Hunter Dillon’s voice to be as high as it was, though this shouldn’t be a problem as his voice deepens in the sequels. I’ll give this to his Rodrick, though: the part when he asks Susan who Rowley was is pretty hilarious, and it doesn’t make him come off as unintelligent as he was in the Long Haul film.

Speaking of Susan, I was far from the only one who thought that Erica Cerra’s voice sounded quieter and somewhat muffled compared to the other characters. I suspect that this may be because Cerra was the first actor to record her lines, and she did it at home due to the coronavirus pandemic before the production later moved to a recording studio. They should’ve probably had Cerra re-record her lines or edited her lines to match the other characters better, but this probably wasn’t done due to time constraints. Either way, this shouldn’t be a problem in the sequels either, as the gradual return to normalcy should make it easier for all the voice actors to record their lines professionally.

In Rowley’s house, Greg talks to him about Joshie, which was pretty neat since this did not happen in the first live-action film. When they go to Westmore Middle School for the first time, I was intrigued to see Ronnie McCoy’s first appearance in a film, as well as George Deveney of all characters. He debuted in Double Down and replaces Bryce Anderson as the most popular boy in school in this version. This was likely done to add some more diversity, which I’m fine with even if I kind of like Bryce. Also, Greg mentioning how popularity is now based off of looks on social media sure shows how things have changed since 2007, a massive improvement to the unnecessary social media references in the Long Haul film.

On Halloween, Manny joins Greg and Rowley, which seemed to have been done to give Manny more screentime. The same can’t exactly be said about Frank, who gets the most screentime at the end of the Halloween arc. Rowley also mentions the Goat Man, who was first mentioned in The Meltdown, another reference to the later books. Much of Susan’s screentime is devoted to a scene in which she tries convincing Greg to do the right thing and be a good friend to Rowley after he accidentally breaks his arm, which he actually attempts to do. I thought this was interesting, since it seemed to be a response to those who accuse Greg of being a terrible person and Susan of being a terrible mother, particularly in the Long Haul film. I actually did not mind this more likeable Greg and certainly appreciated this more likeable Susan, though the later parts of the film don’t completely justify the change.

Greg still pays for trying to take advantage of Rowley’s broken arm, but then the Zoo-Wee Mama arc, while much more faithful to the book than the first live-action film, frames Rowley as more unlikeable than he is. This is due to the absence of most of the other arcs in the book, particularly the Safety Patrol arc, which was much more critical to the dismantling of Greg and Rowley’s friendship. What makes this omission even stranger is the fact that in the book, that earlier scene between Susan and Greg took place in the context of the Safety Patrol arc.

This of course brings us to the film’s biggest issue: the runtime, which clocks in at just 58 minutes. I can’t say that I was devastated when I first heard the news, as I was just happy that we were getting this film to begin with and didn’t think it would hurt the film too much. But cutting the Safety Patrol arc definitely hurt the movie. It could’ve also been great to see the Wizard of Oz play arc, which was only mentioned, the wrestling arc, and other arcs that were not depicted in the first live-action film. This of course brings me to what may be an even more disappointing omission than the Safety Patrol arc: the arc in which Greg tries to make the world’s biggest snowman with Rowley, which was featured in the brief moments of animation we got with the original announcement of the movie. Will we ever get to see this deleted scene?

We should demand this scene to be released, I say!

I also wished we saw characters like Patty Farell (who would have definitely appeared if the Wizard of Oz play arc wasn’t cut), or even Angie Steadman, who isn’t canon to the books but is a personal favorite of mine, and it could’ve been cool to see a 3-D version of her 2-D depiction in the credits of the first live-action film. There’s also Collin Lee, though this is somewhat more forgivable since his role in the book was replaced by Chirag Gupta, who is a bigger character in the series. His appearance here is clearly meant to set up his bigger role in the sequel adaptation of Rodrick Rules like his live-action counterpart. However, I didn’t expect Veda Maharaj’s voice to be as deep as it was, which isn’t exactly expected to get higher in the sequels.

The art style and animation are surprisingly tame by Disney standards, though I was still impressed with some of the visuals, such as the architectural detail in the houses on Surrey Street. The soundtrack also wasn’t as memorable as the soundtrack of the live-action films. I think it would’ve been great if they reused or even remixed the soundtrack from those movies given how iconic the theme is. Even the credits weren’t as fun as they were in the live-action films. I might be sounding nitpicky at this point, but it could’ve also been great if they used a non-original song, akin to the first live-action film’s use of “What Do You Want From Me” by Forever the Sickest Kids, which became a favorite song of mine after watching that film.

Ultimately, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a pretty fine movie that succeeds in doing the one thing it really had to do: to be better than Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul. The only thing is that it achieves this by doing the bare minimum, adapting parts of the book the first live-action film did not but also neglecting the most important parts that made the first live-action film so entertaining. It will certainly bring in new fans but will definitely be viewed as untapped potential to seasoned fans, with the novelty of seeing these characters in 3-D for the first time being the real draw of the movie.

And you know what? Perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, a longer movie would’ve obviously been better, but this is the first 3-D animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid film, after all. It makes sense that even Kinney and Disney are getting used to this world they have created and were thus afraid to take the risk of making a true feature-length film. But now that they’ve got the character designs out of the way, they can dedicate more of their time to making the sequels longer and better. In fact, while discussing his prospects for the sequels, Kinney already promised a longer runtime for the sequel adaptation of Rodrick Rules:

I hope so. And I hope we can make them longer, too. The Rodrick Rules one is a little longer than the first one. I really hope we get to do lots of these stories because we’re really trying to do a good job and we’re not just spitting them out. We’re sort of really taking our time in crafting them and I love that so I hope we can tell lots of stories.

Something tells me my Disney+ subscription is here to stay, and you know what? Perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Until the narrative of this Revival continues, folks. 😉

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