Since the first flick based on Jeff’s Kinney’s series of children’s books became a surprise hit, the studio has rushed ahead with an adaptation of the second of them, with virtually all of the original cast but a different director. The result is a more conventional outing than its predecessor, but actually a more likable picture, even if it’s of no more than cable-TV quality.
Zachary Gordon returns as Greg Heffley, the self-styled wimpy kid of the title, who’s now gotten through the frequently embarrassing sixth grade (and learned some valuable lessons about friendship and being true to yourself) and is entering the seventh. His best pal is still chubby, naïve Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron), who is now interested in becoming a magician. But the emphasis this time around isn’t on their friendship, though it certainly comes into play big-time in the last act (a local talent show, of all the obvious things). Instead it’s on Greg’s relationship with his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), who bullies the kid mercilessly whenever he’s not rehearsing with his no-talent band.
The picture feels like a variant of “Malcolm in the Middle,” with Gordon’s Greg speaking directly to the camera to propel the plot along, occasionally with animated snippets from Kinney’s illustrations as a prop. And the fact that he also has a younger brother (played by twins Owen and Connor Fielding) who torments him too adds to the similarity.
But you can’t push the comparison too far, because though the Henley paterfamilias is a hapless doofus (Steve Zahn, playing the well-meaning nitwit with ease), mom Susan (Rachael Harris) isn’t a drill-sergeant harridan but a sweet, caring sort who wants Greg and Rodrick to bond by spending time together. That works only when they’re left home alone for a weekend, prompting Rodrick to hold a big party (completely inoffensive, incidentally—and implausibly) into which Greg and Rowley impose themselves. When Greg helps Rodrick clean up afterward so their parents won’t find out, the boys actually do find common ground, until the secret slips out and Rodrick’s assault starts up again (especially since he’s forbidden to appear with his band in that talent show). Be assured, though that eventually the boys will both realize how important brotherly love is.
“Rodrick Rules” has plenty of those humiliating moments that are the linchpin of Greg’s maturation—he’s caught outside in nothing but his underwear, for instance—but the only thing that approaches the “yuk” factor of the playground cheese in the first installment involves his being trapped in the ladies’ room of a retirement home (though plastic vomit plays a major role in another episode). Ordinarily, the gags are more family-friendly, based on things like Susan’s overprotective attitude that embarrasses Greg at a skating rink, or a “sawing-a-lady-in-half” magic trick gone wrong.
And, more importantly, Greg is less obnoxious a kid that he was in the first picture. To be sure, he’s still intent on being popular, and tends to put others’ needs at the mercy of achieving that. But he’s less selfish now, and that makes him a more sympathetic figure. That’s also true of Rodrick, and both Gordon and Bostick play the two amiably enough; Capron is agreeable as well. Greg’s also given a new “romantic” interest this time around in blonde Holly Hills (Peyton List), who’s certainly pretty but without much personality. Other familiar characters—like Laine MacNeil’s Patty and Grayson Russell’s Fregley make dutiful reappearances. It’s unfortunate that all of the adults—most notably Harris and Zahn—are encouraged to play things really broadly, but that’s the nature of a product like this.
With its utilitarian production, unimaginative visual sense and obvious messages, “Rodrick Rules” comes off feeling like a telefilm for the Disney Channel. One can understand why the studio is cranking the series out so quickly—kids do grow up fast, after all, and one hates to think of Gordon playing high-school Greg with facial stubble—but the result, as here, is liable to be only middling as feature fodder. “Rodrick Rules” isn’t terrible, but you get the impression it really belongs on the tube.