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DIARY OF THE WIMPY KID: RODRICK RULES (2011) (***)

Jeff Kinney, the author of the books that make up these films, prides himself in making the books lesson free. That doesn’t work very well in feature films. At least not emotionally satisfying ones. The first film found a way to take Kinney’s comic vignettes and made a pretty compelling coming of age story that dealt with the pressures of going to middle school and being loyal to a friend. This film also finds a compelling premise to build its story around. The unique relationship of brothers.

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Jeff Kinney, the author of the books that make up these films, prides himself in making the books lesson free. That doesn’t work very well in feature films. At least not emotionally satisfying ones. The first film found a way to take Kinney’s comic vignettes and made a pretty compelling coming of age story that dealt with the pressures of going to middle school and being loyal to a friend. This film also finds a compelling premise to build its story around. The unique relationship of brothers.

Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, THE BROTHERS BLOOM) starts out the film wishing he could sell his brothers, especially his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick, SAW VI), who tries to humiliate him at every turn. Their mother Susan (Rachael Harris, THE HANGOVER) devises ways to force the two to spend time together. She says that she will give them one mom buck (board game money) for every hour they spend together without fighting. She starts them off with five mom bucks. Rodrick cashes in right away. Their father Frank (Steve Zahn, HAPPY, TEXAS) just stands back and smiles.

For fans of the first film, new director David Bowers (FLUSHED AWAY) weaves in references to the original. I particularly liked the nod to the sixth grade Greg not being able to get a seat in the lunch room. Also returning are many of the colorful characters. Greg’s innocent best friend Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE) is back to get a dose of trickle down humiliation from Greg. School freak Fregley (Grayson Russell, TALLADEGA NIGHTS) finds a way to make ventriloquist dummies creepier than they already are. Patty Farrell (Laine MacNeil, TV’s THE HAUNTING HOUR) still likes to inflict pain on Greg. And the school still pretends that poor little Chirag Gupta (Karan Brar) is invisible. We also get a new character   the “super cute” new girl Holly Hills (Peyton List, REMEMBER ME).

Bostick’s role as Greg’s rocker older brother is fleshed out more in this film, which is to its benefit because the actor is a natural comedian. He and Gordon work well together and sell their sibling rivalry naturally. Rodrick tries to impart some wisdom to his little brother, but it sometimes has detrimental (and funny) results.

Many of the brother bonding or torment moments are nothing greater than a good sitcom. How many times have we seen the “have to clean up a party” scene in TV and films? Of course, Kinney’s source material provides funny bits to make it fresher though. But as a sitcom, elements are toned down for the family crowd. Would a driving age teen really have a party where Coke and pretzels are the only thing being served?

The film is geared toward what an elementary school kid might think it is like being in high school. Okay maybe a naïve one at that. While the film is skewed to the juvenile side, it still understands the real feelings that go behind its story. Like the first film did with transitioning to a new school, this film deals with the politics of dealing with a brother. For the younger brother, the relationship is precarious because one misstep and an ally can quickly turn to your worst enemy.

In the first film, Greg was a bit more self-centered, which made his character unique. Here, he is a year older and less selfish. He’s still Greg, but made a little less unique. Unlike HARRY POTTER, this will be a series that will be hard to continue as the actors get older. Kinney has the luxury in comics to keep his character the same age forever.

While it’s not quite as good as the first film, I still found myself wrapped up in Greg and Rodrick’s contentious relationship just like I did between Greg and Rowley in part one. This family “lesson” is also told in a quite humorous way. The talent show provides some of the biggest laughs. And like all good sequels, the film expands, not just copies. We also get more of Susan and Frank too, which is to the benefit of the film because Harris and Zahn can make anything funny. It’s a family film geared toward the youngest members, but understands that there are older members coming too. The whole family might be based on a comic, but the characters here aren’t simple cartoons.

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