Simple protagonists have always proven powerful for the author of the hugely popular book series, whose new 3DCG feature follows the ongoing riotous antics of angst-ridden, disaster-prone middle school student Greg Heffley; film premieres December 2 on Disney+.
For six years in a row, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” won the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award for Favorite Book and, as of this year, more than 275 million copies of Jeff Kinney’s 17 books have sold globally, making it the sixth best-selling series of all time. He’s also authored three additional books as part of a spin-off series.
The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series – which follows middle-schooler Greg Heffley as he illustrates his daily life in a diary – is still going strong, with four live-action feature films released by 20th Century Fox between 2010 and 2017, as well as an animated feature film, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, from Walt Disney Pictures and Bardel Entertainment, released last December. On Friday, December 2, Kinney and the Disney team will release the second 3DCG animated film in the franchise, Diary Of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, on Disney+.
Kinney, who spent almost a decade working on the first book before it was published in 2007 after its 2004 online release, serves as writer and producer on the film, joined on the production by director Luke Cormican from Teen Titans Go!.
The animated sequel to 2021’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid is based on the second book in Kinney’s series and continues the riotous antics of angst-ridden, disaster-prone middle school student Greg Heffley. But, this time, the story centers on Greg’s complicated relationship with his spikey-haired, high school-aged older brother Rodrick.
Lazy and undisciplined, Rodrick spends way too much time practicing with his rock band, Löded Diper, but while he loves to torment Greg, he ultimately has a deep affection for his younger brother. So, when Greg and Rodrick’s parents leave the boy’s home alone for the week, Rodrick takes Greg under his wing to teach his little brother “Rodrick Rules” of life, no apostrophe “s” included.
Though the road to success didn’t start out smoothly, Kinney’s series quickly garnered success once it went into print, proving that a wonky and wimpy cartoon middle-schooler can earn its place among kids’ fictional heroes. We got the chance to unpack this phenomenon with Kinney in a recent interview, discussing the new film, animation’s role in amplifying Greg and the other characters, and his hopes for how these stories will impact family dynamics.
Victoria Davis: Jumping back many years, how did the journey of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” begin?
Jeff Kinney: Well, it started with failure, actually. I really wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, like my heroes, Charles Schultz, Bill Watterson, and Gary Larson. So that's what I set out to do. Unfortunately, the syndicates didn't like my work, or the world of cartoon syndication was really becoming more limited. So, I didn't have a shot. I spent about three years trying to become a syndicated cartoonist but couldn't break in.
I eventually decided that if I wanted to get my cartoons seen, I was going to have to come up with a different format for them. So, I had the idea for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I worked on it for about eight years before I showed it to anyone, and then finally brought a sample packet to New York Comic Con, found an editor, and I was published about a year later.
VD: I know you're a father. Did your kids inspire some of the stories and journeys you’ve taken your characters on in the books?
JK: I wish they were a bigger inspiration. Unfortunately, my kids were both athletes. They both played basketball and had a different life than I did. They also were very different from Greg, in a lot of ways. So, I got little tidbits here and there and, every so often, I'd get something that I could use out of them. But now they're 17 and 20 and they don't read my books anymore. That ship has sailed.
VD: The Rodrick Rules story is from the second book in your series of 17 books, which is just amazing to think about. And this film focuses on the relationship between these brothers, Rodrick and Greg. Is this story a deeper dive into the brothers' relationship than you've done in other books in your series? Does the film differ from the book at all?
JK: Yeah and, in fact, when I wrote those first few books, I didn't know how to tell a story, especially not an emotionally resonant story. I was just trying to string a bunch of funny jokes together. Now, in writing for the screen, it's a really different experience. You have to tell a story of change, a story of transformation, and also a story that really works for a whole family to watch. So, it's a different medium, for sure and I have to take a particularly different approach.
VD: Why was unpacking Rodrick and Greg’s relationship an important part of this franchise for you? Because, as you said, you spent a lot of time just stringing together jokes for these books, but this a really important topic for a lot of kids and families… the relationship between two brothers who are so different where one tends to relentlessly pick on the other.
JK: That's what's been really fun about working with Disney. We're trying to take a theme and then hit it really hard, to the point where anything that doesn't relate to the theme doesn't go in the movie. So, the first movie is about the friendship between Greg and his best friend. And the second one is about Greg and his brother. And I think the more universal we can make the stories, the better.
A lot of us grew up with older siblings or younger siblings, and you can see your own family dynamic play out on the screen. In a way, that's what Diary of a Wimpy Kid is.
VD: What were some of the key messages or concepts you wanted to share with kids in the books? And how has animation heightened those messages in these last two movies?
JK: Truthfulness is important, and then humor. Truthfulness in that we're trying to tell a story that doesn't feel contrived, that feels authentic to a kid's life. And, of course, we've got to make these stories funny or they're not going to work. Animation really helps with humor. You can see animation as sort of an abstract. You can get a lot out of it. But sometimes the best moments in the film come from the quiet moments. Edward Asner voices Grandpa Heffley, and he talks about his regrets as a father that his sons didn't stay close. We are using these animated characters to make an impactful statement. It's kind of cool that you can do that.
JK: It was a challenge to make sure there was a lot of fidelity in the characters. We went through lots of different models. So, Rowley [Jefferson], for example, was a really hard character to render because of the odd shape of his head. But now we've got the pattern down, and we've got the formula down. So, I'll draw something as a sketch on a page and they'll come out on the other end as a 3D animated character. It’s all a testament to their skills.
VD: It's funny you mention Rowley’s head shape because I remember talking to the team behind the new Rugrats series, and they said something similar. You have these 2D illustrations that are really wonky, which is part of their charm, that you're translating into a 3D/CG show. And that can be really difficult because you don't want them to look terrifying or scary or wrong. Besides Rowley, were there characters whose features you had to finesse to fit this new style?
JK: Yeah, it's kind of funny because, with Rodrick in particular, if you look at his head in the book, you can see that he's got these spiky hairs. But they're all in a row. So, when you put that onto his head, spaced out, in 3D, it almost looks like a Chia Pet. It’s unsettling in a way. The dad, Frank, his hair was a challenge as well. Definitely a lot of technical challenges.
What's interesting is that, if we had another one hundred million dollars to spend on this movie, I don't know how different it would have looked because my characters are sort of basic and there are not a lot of new nuances. We don't have skin textures or anything like that. The characters are pretty simple.
VD: But do you think that simplicity serves the story well? I've talked to many animators who lean on that, where their designs are more simplistic. As far as deadlines and budget side, there are benefits. But, story-wise, there can be too, where it allows you to focus on more important parts of the narrative rather than just what things look like. Did you find that to be true with the books as well as the animated movies?
JK: I think it does. Quite frankly, it allows us to tell the stories economically. I'm not sure if we’d get any budget to make a movie about two best friends having a fight over a video game. So that definitely helps. And even though the characters are basic, they're also pretty elastic. There is some freedom that comes with making characters that aren't so fully rendered.
They are these very basic characters who are sort of archetypes and really lightly drawn doodles, so you can project yourself and your experiences onto the characters, which I think is part of the fun.
VD: And it’s a similar concept with the storylines themselves, isn’t it? There are so many shows and films coming out now that are that are meant to inspire kids with these massively heroic characters in unbelievable settings, but “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” really is the opposite of that. It's a lot more honest, a slice of the unglamorous childhood, and the fan base that’s grown over the years proves that there's that there's not necessarily one way to reach kids.
JK: If you think of the most successful children's series of all time, “Harry Potter,” he is heroic. He's brave. He always does the right thing. He's famous. He's powerful. He's an aspirational character. And Greg is not an aspirational character. He's messy. He's selfish. He’s wimpy. But the fact that there is room for a Greg Heffley and a Harry Potter says that people want to see a breadth of human characteristics in their protagonists.
VD: Looking back at this journey, which started out with failure before exploding into this hugely successful franchise that connects with so many kids, what's it been like seeing how far you’ve come, and how far Greg and his friends and family have come, since 2004?
JK: It's been humbling. The experiences that I've had that have spun off from Diary of a Wimpy Kid have been extraordinary. I've gotten to meet presidents in the White House, I've gotten to travel the world and meet celebrities and everything like that. So that is fun and it's also humbling because I write these stories in a cemetery in my car in Plainville, Massachusetts, and then they get out to the whole world. So, it really tells you the power of publishing. Our publishing is power of amplification, and I feel very fortunate that somebody saw fit to amplify my stories.
VD: If there was something that you really wanted audiences and families to take away from this latest movie, what would it be?
JK: Especially because we're making stories for families, it would be to give kids a window into their parents' lives, and that it generates conversation and makes parents tell stories about how when they were younger, they used to fight with their siblings too. I think that these stories can create really interesting conversations, because the stories are universal and simple.
VD: I love that you're not just letting the film itself do all the work, that you're encouraging this chain reaction from families. I think that’s one of the best kind of films, that continues to bring families closer together after they’ve watched it.
JK: If you think of the movie Frozen, it's about these sisters. And it's a really simple story at its core, but that story could not have been as resonant if it wasn't about these sisters and changed into how the girl got the guy at the end. It's better because it really stuck to its core. And that's what we're trying to do with the Wimpy Kid movies, pick a theme and then really hammer away at it.