Few moviegoers are as demanding as young readers confronted with a film adaptation of a book they love. The makers of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises live in terror of the judgment of such audiences, who often demand literal fidelity to the text in question. The minor liberties and omissions of the recent movie version of “The Lightning Thief” provoked withering scorn, at least from a certain fifth grader I know. As for “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” — let’s just say that it’s better that I went to the screening alone.
Not that the movie, based on Jeff Kinney’s popular series of schoolboy misadventures, departs egregiously from its source. The problem is that in dutifully transferring to the screen Mr. Kinney’s comical episodes — which he illustrates with witty and expressive line drawings — the director, Thor Freudenthal (“Hotel for Dogs”), and the four credited screenwriters have stripped away nearly all the humor, insight and energy. The movie looks drab and drained of color, and can’t even muster the antic buoyancy of an average episode of “iCarly.”
The title character, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), chronicles his first year of middle school, taking note of the social anxieties and identity crises that pop up in that hostile and strange environment. At home, there is a scolding mother (Rachael Harris), a distracted dad (Steve Zahn), a mean older brother (Devon Bostick) and a nonverbal toddler, who all provide moments of predictable comedy. The main drama involves Greg’s relationship with his best pal, Rowley (Robert Capron), a tubby, cheery fellow whom Greg rejects for being insufficiently cool.
There is nothing wrong with the story itself, but the tone is grating and the pacing sluggish. Episodes that might be howlingly funny on the page turn weirdly gross and sadistic on screen, though young viewers are unlikely to be upset or offended by the occasional bout of bullying or nose picking. They are more likely to be bored, which is much worse.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is rated PG (Parental Guidance suggested). Some rough incidents and crude humor.