In spite of the ongoing franchise's title, middle schooler Greg (Zachary Gordon) is slowly outgrowing his status as a "wimpy kid." His Kafka-esque, put-upon existence in the first film gave way to a sequel that saw him battling his cruel older brother while searching for a workable teenage personality that sometimes found him indulging in that same kind of pre-adolescent bloodsport. But he's maturing and even though he still hates gross things like worms and dog spit, is miserable in crowded spaces and given to lying his way through tight social difficulties, he's got exactly zero real-life problems to complain about.
Okay, there's one. His parents have interrupted his comfortable summer vacation plans, which included playing video games, playing video games, playing video games and then playing even more video games with a pretty girl in his class (Peyton List). But it takes only one day of gaming for Dad (Steve Zahn) and Mom (Rachael Harris) to pull the plug. Forced outside into a world of "sports games" in which he takes no interest, he's forced to figure out a way to have fun and avoid Mom's Little Women-reading book club and an unpaid, cubicle-bound internship in Dad's office.
Botched Civil War reenactments and ruined fishing trips, the humiliation of becoming separated from swim trunks, the lure of scary carnival rides, the agony of chasing the girl he likes and the thrill of creating a fake persona to sneak into the local country club all figure into Greg's mishap-fueled summer of subterfuge and, in spite of his willful mischief, lead him to some very old-fashioned conclusions about how to navigate a happy life with the most mystifying people of all: his parents.
It's an unusual path for a kid-centric movie to take. Popular culture has largely shifted from narratives in which children learn lessons from more experienced elders to self-esteem tales where their own power is enough to see them through if only they'll "believe in themselves" a little more. But this isn't really a hero's journey, it's still a fresh-faced, warm-hearted wimpy kid's rocky road (his preferred symbolic flavor of ice cream, by the way, one that falls off the list of favorite treats when he's forced to share a cone with three other tongues). And if this third installment is any indication, it's one the un-hero will continue to happily stumble down as he moves into high school. The only question is whether or not its audience will outgrow it before he grows up.