Film Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

The most obvious of humor and weakest of plots lead this road comedy based on Jeff Kinney’s popular books down a dead end.
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Movies directed towards kids tend to have diminishing returns, maybe because kids who enjoy a movie when younger grow up and find other interests. The longer the wait between installments, the more likely you are to lose them.

This puts quite an onus on Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, the fourth movie in the series based on twelve popular books (and a few auxiliary releases) by Jeff Kinney; two of the three previous outings were directed by The Long Haul’s David Bowers, who co-wrote this one with Kinney.

With five years since the previous installment, Dog Days, one wonders what can be done to bring back those who enjoyed the other three movies while offering something new for younger kids first discovering the books. Completely changing the entire cast might not have been the wisest way of doing this, as necessary as it may have seemed.

To fully understand these films, one has to know going in that they’re fairly episodic, throwing young Greg Heffley (Jason Drucker), his family and sometimes friends into different situations, a bit like a dozen episodes of The Brady Bunch crammed into one movie. The events generally leave Greg getting the worst of it.

In this case, the movie begins with Greg finding diapers in the ball pit of a popular family restaurant, an incident caught on video that goes viral with Greg getting labeled “Diaper Hands.” It’s one of the movie’s only recurring jokes as it follows the Heffleys on a family road trip for the 90th birthday party of their “Meemaw.”  Greg wants to use the trip as an excuse to attend Players Expo, where showing off his videogame skills will help him overcome being a joke on the Internet.

It’s unclear who thought it would be a good idea to make a PG-rated version of National Lampoon’s Vacation, but that’s the basic model for The Long Haul. The Heffleys make stops along the way at a seedy motel and a county fair, while at the same time feuding with another traveling family and even picking up an adorable baby piglet along the way.

Because it’s been seven years since the original Diary of a Wimpy Kid debuted, many of the original kids from the series, including Zachary Gordon’s Greg Heffley, have gotten too old to replay those parts. This doesn’t explain why Clueless star Alicia Silverstone and Tom Everett Scott (An American Werewolf in London) have replaced Greg’s original parents. Maybe the original actors’ contracts ran out, and the production wanted to save money with their replacements?

Steve Zahn is the most sorely missed from the original cast, since he brought so much humor while playing Greg’s father. Otherwise, young Jason Drucker does a fine job filling Greg’s shoes, and it’s doubtful many kids will notice the switch. Same with his dopey older brother Rodrick, who is made to seem even dumber in the hands of actor Charlie Wright. At least Silverstone slides gracefully into the role of their neurotic mother.

Instead of achieving any of the highs of either The Brady Bunch or Vacation, this needless sequel comes off more like an episode of a Saturday morning kids’ show and is as instantly forgettable. There are a few clever bits, most of which will go over the heads of the film’s juvenile target audience—a Psycho reference, for instance—but it mostly goes for the lowest hanging fruit with gross-out humor galore.

One has to wonder whether 20th Century Fox held some form of blackmail over Bowers (or maybe even a gun to his head) to make him go through this experience yet again, especially with this all-new cast. At times, it feels like it’s as grueling for him making the movie as it is for us to watch it.

If nothing else, The Long Haul should keep your kids quiet for 90 minutes, because they probably won’t be laughing much at these easy gags either. It’s also doubtful anyone of any age will be clamoring for a fifth Wimpy Kid movie anytime soon.

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