Here is the one and possibly only way that the middle school comedy Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul keeps the faith for hardcore cineastes: It is a theatrical release. This may not seem like a major plus; to parents tasked with escorting a group of tweens to a theater to watch this particular movie, it may seem downright irksome. But give the Wimpy Kid series some credit. Its fourth movie, appearing after a five-year break and a full recast to keep the characters the same ages, seems like a prime opportunity for a retreat into the direct-to-DVD zone or perhaps a regroup as a streaming TV series. Instead, director and co-writer David Bowers remains to make sure that young Wimpy Kid fans can experience the modest, few-frills enchantment of seeing their favorite characters (and also protagonist Greg Heffley) come to life on a moderate-sized multiplex screen.
Bowers has directed all of the Wimpy Kid movies except the first one, and until this point, they had been incrementally improving on his watch, to the point that the summer-set third entry, Dog Days, marked a series high point, particularly in its depiction of nervous, craven middle-schooler Greg’s relationship with his sometimes short-fused father. It’s disappointing, then, that The Long Haul, set during a presumably different summer vacation, feels grodier and more DVD-ready than its predecessors. Despite maintaining its wide-release status, it traffics in computer-generated vomit, a surprising number of defecation gags, and a weird grudge against both the overweight and the bearded.
The Long Haul does improve in one respect. Greg, the Kevin Arnold-ish everykid whose journaled illustrations are approximated in the books by author Jeff Kinney (and occasionally reproduced, amusingly, in the movies), is less of an insufferable pill this time. He’s still not especially interesting, smart, nice, likable, or even wimpy (Diary Of A Weak-Willed A-Hole would be the more accurate if less appropriate title), and Jason Drucker, the new Greg, isn’t necessarily a better actor than his predecessor. He’s arguably worse, though it’s hard to assess anyone’s acting abilities when Bowers seems to be encouraging them all to take long, uncomfortable laugh-track-ready pauses in between or sometimes even within their lines. (The new kids have also been oddly styled to resemble their previous big-screen counterparts, clinging to physical details, like hairstyles, that aren’t present in Kinney’s charming stick-figure drawings.) But Greg’s apprehension over a long family road trip, from which his mom (Alicia Silverstone) has sadistically banned any use of personal electronics, is at least relatable.
The road-trip structure also separates Greg from Rowley (Owen Asztalos), sparing the movie another subplot where Greg is embarrassed of his supposed best friend. This makes Greg easier to like, but the movie less so, as it cruelly denies the audience Rowley’s thoroughly uncool enthusiasm. Instead, Greg’s ally under duress is his nasty older brother, Rodrick (Charlie Wright), a teenage miscreant in an Avenged Sevenfold T-shirt who supports his little brother’s secret plan to reroute the trip to swing by a gaming convention instead of a family get-together.
Wright competes with the memory of Original Rodrick by playing him louder, dumber, and broader whenever possible. With Wright mugging like crazy and Silverstone saying so many of her lines through a grin that she sometimes appears on the verge of a psychotic break, Tom Everett Scott keeps his head down and tries not to get too worked up as the Heffley dad. The previous Greg Heffley sometimes feared his father, one of the series’ most Wonder Years-like touches. Here, Frank Heffley also kinda wants his cellphone back, and in the dreary tradition of the Berenstain Bears, becomes a de facto third child to be lectured by Mom.
As ever, the newest Wimpy Kid movie does manage to sketch in bits of funny minutiae, some realistic and some cartoonish. The former comes in the form of the YouTuber Greg and Rowley both adore, whose posts consist entirely of him issuing inane commentary as he plays through video games; the latter includes an unlikely but briefly inventive chase through one of those centrifugal-force carnival rides, marred by the appearance and, especially, the poor quality of the aforementioned CG puke. Even children will find some of these gags predictable—or just plain dumb, like the moment where characters inexplicably stand still as a car tire sprays them with mud rather than making any attempt to move out of the way. Here is the problem with making four movies about a middle-schooler who only ages a little and learns sitcom-ready lessons: After a while, it all starts to feel as repetitive and uninspired as any number of more ambitious franchises. The Long Haul has a chance to reimagine the series and only comes up with Vacation Junior.