Karan Brar, left, Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron in ÂDiary… (Rob McEwan / 20th Century…)
Snot, I think, is funnier when it's animated. So is excessively moldy cheese. Also, if some kid's getting smacked around, it's likely to be less painful if you don't hear the punch or the slap; slapstick in general takes on a different, more clinical and humorless air when handled realistically, which is why "Home Alone" remains a low point in the history of hugely successful "family" comedies.
So here we are with "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," "Hotel for Dogs" director Thor Freudenthal's live-action feature film version of the Jeff Kinney books. Kids may love the movie, and even kids who love the books may like it.
For me, though, an astonishing percentage of the books' appeal has vanished. The petty jealousies, vindictive pranks and raging insecurities as endured (and fomented) by Kinney's put-upon protagonist, Greg Heffley, were great fun on the page, thanks to the doodly, episodic energy of Kinney's journal entries. Redone for the real world, with real actors and a serious lack of wit, "Wimpy Kid" is no longer special. Any good episode of "Malcolm in the Middle" or "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide" had the stuff this film doesn't: the cleverly hyperbolic touch that takes the audience a step or two away from comic realism, fruitfully.
Greg (Zachary Gordon) is starting middle school with a dread-filled outlook, thanks to his evil older brother (Devon Bostick). Written by two sets of screenwriters, the film focuses on the up-and-down friendship of Greg and Rowley (Robert Capron), and introduces a character (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) who's not in the books, a wised-up charmer named Angie whose attitude will warm the heart of any fan of "Daria."
The casting's pretty fair, and if they had better material, Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris (as Greg's parents) would've been real assets. But the story lurches from indignity to ill-starred wrestling match to gross-out gag without any momentum or surprise. I laughed during a montage showing how drastically some kids change over the course of a summer, and then again at one of the transitional animated segments, nicely in sync with Kinney's original drawings. "Those years are universally kind of ugly," Kinney, who executive-produced, has said of the middle-school inferno. That world was crying out to be animated, in full, and in every sense.