“Oh, back to school. Back to school. To prove to dad that I’m not a fool.”
I forgive you for not knowing that Adam Sandler sings that improvised rhyme as his perpetually adolescent Billy Madison waits in his driveway for the bus to bring him back to elementary school after a 15-year-absence.
With September looming and kids everywhere packing book bags for class, we’ve been thinking about the right back-to-school movie to highlight in the "When Can I Watch" column. But outside of Rodney Dangerfield’s classic, an emotionally overwrought melodrama (Dead Poet’s Society, for instance) or the dark-tinged films of John Hughes, the back-to-school pickings are slim.
Luckily, my boys to an early shine to Thor Freudenthal’s adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s award-winning Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and that film – plus its enjoyable sequel – have become staples in the O’Connell house. If you haven’t watched the Wimpy Kid films with your children yet, now’s a great time to expose them to the movies as well as the books on which they are based.
My oldest son, P.J., actually introduced us to Kinney’s novels, which convey an ample amount of middle-school knowledge and social smarts using adolescent humor and competently drawn stick figures. P.J. brought the books home from school, and we devoured them during bedtime reading.
The movies, I’m happy to report, live up to the joking tone and sarcastic mood of the books, with the sequel actually making improvements in terms of character development and joke pacing. Critics tend to savage the films. But Fox makes them on the cheap, and the studio turns a decent profit thanks to Kinney’s loyal fanbase. (A third Wimpy Kid, based on Dog Days, is filming as you read this.)
So, let’s pass the cheese touch to our enemies, download the latest Loded Diper album, choreograph a dance with our moms, and figure out when you can watch Diary of a Wimpy Kid with your kids.
Red Flags: “Three Days, No Shower, Smell the Love”
The first day of school can be terrifying. Scratch that. The first day of ANYTHING can be terrifying. Starting a new job, joining a new team, moving to a new city … each comes with its own form of anxiety. How we handle such adversary tends to define us as individuals.
P.J. started second grade last week. Lucky for him, he has been in the same school since kindergarten, and he moved up with a number of the same kids he went to preschool with, so stress levels on the first day of school are nonexistent. These seven-year-olds have a while to go before encountering the “horrors” of middle school, as presented by Kinney and his Wimpy Kid world. Still, on our most recent viewing, as terrified new student Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) raced around the cafeteria trying to find the right place (and the “right” people to sit next to), P.J. kind of said with a laugh, “Oh man, I don’t think I want to go to middle school anymore.”
He knows enough about how school operates to understand that the social hierarchy on display in Kinney’s Wimpy Kid movies is exaggerated yet still grounded in some form of reality. Kids graduating from the safety and comfort of elementary school and heading to middle school for the first time this year can learn a few lessons from Greg’s daily hardships, meaning the obstacles in Diary of a Wimpy Kid are both red flags and possible green lights.
The quote in the Red Flags caption above belongs to Rodrick, Greg’s sadistic older brother who Devon Bostick plays with a humorous mean-spiritedness younger siblings will recognize (and recoil from). Parents should be aware that Rodrick is outright cruel in the first Wimpy Kid movie, but the relationship between the brothers establishes more of a give-and-take in the sequel (which was preferred).
There also are a handful of questionable scenes in the first Wimpy Kid that parents might want to screen first. Greg and Rowley encounter bullies while trick-or-treating on Halloween night. There’s enough toilet humor in Wimpy Kid to entertain your everyday 10-year-old audience member, yet not enough to turn off that kid’s parents. Case in point: Rodrick surprises Greg while in the bathroom, leading to the older brother receiving a chest full of urine. Plus, the whole vibe of Greg’s social failures at school are disheartening, to say the least.
But the good far outweighs on the bad when it comes to the Wimpy Kid movies, and I think there are a number of excellent topics you can discuss with your kids after watching these films. Let’s break those down.
Green Lights: Zoo-Wee-Mama!
Kinney isn’t John Hughes, but he does have a commendable connection to the hopes and fears of your average middle-schooler, and this unique understanding informs both his Wimpy Kid books and the subsequent movies.
Gordon plays Greg as self-confident to the point of delusional, which explains why his misguided efforts to fit in turn him into the school’s top outcast. Meanwhile, Greg’s best friend Rowley (played with pure innocence by a charming Robert Capron) succeeds by following his mom’s advice: Be yourself and people will like you.
The Wimpy Kid screenplay boasts numerous pearls of wisdom like that. The entire film actually builds to a gloriously grotesque crescendo involving an ancient slice of Swiss cheese that teaches kids how to stand up for their friends because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the easiest thing to do. Great lesson.
I also support the film’s underlying message of kids keeping diaries or journals to record their activities, thoughts and feelings. Probably because his dad’s a film critic, P.J. takes it upon himself to bring a note pad to screenings and jot down his thoughts and ideas. I’ve held on to notes and scribbles my son has taken for countless movies, and while he’s probably forgotten that they even exist, these little insights into his thought process mean the world to me.
Oh, and parents watching Wimpy Kid won’t be made to suffer. Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris present a realistic depiction of overwhelmed parents trying to figure out their sons. Kinney also nails the malaise that grips middle school teachers (particularly the physical education instructor). And Chloe Moretz – yes, the very same Chloe Moretz of Kick-Ass and Let Me In – steals the show as the wise-beyond-her-shoe-size middle schooler who escapes the doldrums of the education system by hiding under the bleachers. She’ll date her school’s version of John Bender some day.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid should be mandatory viewing for kids heading off to middle school this year. Greg Heffley may not be a boy wizard, but his misadventures with best friend Rowley and older brother Rodrick will be far more relatable to kids than the exploits of Hogwarts’ famous savior.
Kinney writes for young kids, and the movies follow his lead. I’d say the two Wimpy Kid movies are perfect for kids age 8 and up, though there’s enough physical comedy and bathroom humor that little brothers and sisters watching along with their older siblings will enjoy most of it, as well.
I’m going to try and fit in another back-to-school When Can I Watch column next week before we drift too far away from the topic. It’s a reader suggestion. It’s aimed at older kids. And it stars some very Mean Girls.
Until then, if you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Lucas, The Monster Squad and The Sound of Music, to name just a few.