It's an inalienable right of childhood to appreciate a little formulaic entertainment without fun-killing adults telling you how formulaic it is. But it's an inalienable right of parenthood to minimize your consumption of material that's utterly boring if you aren't 8 years old. That makes some movies difficult to condemn, but also difficult to recommend.
One such is Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, which shifts the focus of the burgeoning film franchise — based on Jeff Kinney's wildly popular books about seventh-grader Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) — from Greg's school life to his home. The stories this time are loosely organized around Greg's relationship with his sneering older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick).
But for the most part this is a collection of set pieces that movies have served up many, many times before: The Disastrous Party When Mom And Dad Were Away. The New Girl At School. The Unlikely Triumph At The Talent Show. Everything is entirely by the numbers, more so here than the first time around — the interesting girl journalist from the first film, played by Chloe Moretz, has been replaced by a nondescript dream girl (Peyton List) with no personality at all.
The film's complete lack of originality may not bother kids as much as it will adults — not because kids are dumb, but because they haven't sat through all of its predecessors the way their parents have. Every beat in the story of the wild party, for instance, follows every template laid down from The Cosby Show to Sixteen Candles. But if you hadn't seen those, would it matter as much?
But if the plot weaknesses aren't a complete deal-breaker, the presentation might well be. In sharp contrast to the Wimpy Kid books, which are instantly recognizable for their spare, vibrant line drawings, the films have little style at all. Rodrick Rules was directed by David Bowers, who directed the animated films Flushed Away and Astro Boy, and who presents this story with a blankness that wouldn't seem out of place on the Disney Channel. Even when Kinney's drawings flash briefly on the screen, the primary effect is to underline what a generic-looking film has been made from such great-looking books.
It's a bit problematic, too, that Greg, as played by Gordon, isn't as sympathetic as you might expect. The kind of kid-acting on display here is heavy on mugging and big gestures, and there are moments in which Rodrick's constant desire to slam doors in his face is disturbingly easy to understand.
For all these reasons, Rodrick Rules is not part of the new breed of kids' movies, both live-action and animated,that parents have come to hope for — films with accessible wit and an inventiveness they can appreciate. For kids who love the Wimpy Kids books and who don't have especially high expectations, it may suffice.
But it's not a movie with broad appeal — for the simple reason that if you've already seen this story in a hundred other versions, nothing in the execution is adequate to bring it back to life. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.