It was merely a year ago when the world was introduced to the cinematic incarnation of author Jeff Kinney's saga of adolescent woe. "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" was only a moderate hit in the spring of 2010, but it was cheap, crude, and ripe for expansion. Enter "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules," the hastily assembled follow-up, which does away with what little passed for legitimate charm the first time around. Of course, fans won't likely mind, which is exactly what the producers are hoping for.
Now entering the seventh grade, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is eager to ditch his past unpopularity, looking to woo class newcomer Holly (Peyton R. List) without causing himself any great embarrassment. Killing any and all opportune moments is brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), an unshowered rapscallion who can't stand Greg. Finding the increasing hostility between the two unbearable, Greg's mother Susan (a scene-stealing Rachael Harris) orders the pair to get along, trusting time spent alone together might help cool the tension. Bonding over parties, mischief, and the hilarity of fake vomit, Greg and Rodrick grow to enjoy each other's company, a development that stuns the family and Greg's best pal, Rowley (Robert Capron).
With the 2010 picture registering as barely tolerable, it's a grand disappointment to find the sequel disregarding much of what made the first movie succeed. Dealing with pubescent kids in a highly cartoon atmosphere, "Wimpy Kid" director Thor Freudenthal nailed a few perfectly weird moment of pre-teen behavior, gifting the picture an unexpected personality -- a variety of kooky developments that pulled the film away from eye-rolling runs of gross-out jokes and formulaic domestic business.
"Rodrick Rules" doesn't submit the same monkey business, with director David Bowers (an animation vet) apparently overwhelmed by the filmmaking challenge. There's no rolling progression to the sequel, a painful realization that's introduced immediately in a labored prologue that finds Greg navigating the challenges of a roller rink to make a positive impression on Holly. The opener offers no spark, with lethargic comic timing and a lame sense of slapstick staging. Granted, Bowers appears to have been presented with a lower budget and weaker source material, but there's little gas in the creative tank. From the first few moments, it's apparent "Rodrick Rules" just doesn't know how to summon high-flying fun.
Where "Wimpy Kid" detailed a hellish junior high existence, "Rodrick Rules" sticks closer to home, covering the antagonistic relationship between Greg and his big brother, who also harbors dreams of becoming a rock star drummer with his band Loded Diper. The film emphasizes the psychopathic torment to a shrill degree, leaving me to wonder why Greg doesn't simply beat his fiendish brother to death with a pillowcase filled with soda cans. Rodrick is such a repellent character, such an untrustworthy jerk (Bostick brutally overplays every scene), it's impossible to buy into the premise that, golly gee, aren't all big bros like this? They're not, and the harder Bowers pushes to make Rodrick some type of guyliner-wearing everyteen, the harder it becomes to swallow the bruised candyland family portrait the sequel is painting.
Those rascals! Just don't leave the knife drawer unlocked when the bigger one is around. He's a little unbalanced.
The other problem "Rodrick Rules" faces is an incomplete adaptation. Story beats are scattered all over the place as Bowers looks to retain Greg's widescreen world, welcoming old friends such a Fregley (Grayson Russell) and braided terror Patty (Laine MacNeil) back into the mix. There's a strange bit with Chirag (Karan Brar) that has Greg encouraging the entire school to ignore him for reasons not fully understood, requiring the petite Indian boy to cross-dress as a way to break the spell. There's also an aborted subplot with Loded Diper guitarist Bill (Fran Kranz), a spaced metalhead who, I think, is around to keep the parental units wary of Rodrick's music dreams. Superfans of Kinney's writing will undoubtedly understand motivations upon first sight of the subplots, but those new to sequel situations might find themselves utterly baffled by a few turns of this compromised story.
Oh, how I miss the simplicity of the cheese touch.