Kids, even the wimpy ones, grow up so fast. It's hard to finish a film franchise with them before they're shaving, dating and turning up in the tabloids.
Zachary Gordon, the fresh-faced lad who landed the coveted "Wimpy Kid" role in the adaptations of Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movies, has had a growth spurt. His Greg Heffley is taller than his portly pal, Rowley (Robert Capron), almost tall enough not to have to take any more guff from his bullying older brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick).
Greg's voice has changed. But in the summer before he goes into eighth grade, he's still inept around girls, still lying to his parents, still self-absorbed and rude to others.
The lying is what he does to "make a connection" to the pretty blonde Holly Hills (Peyton List). And to get to her, he takes advantage of Rowley and Rowley's parents, who are members of the country club where Holly plays tennis. Greg gate-crashes the enclave of the 1 percent.
Manny, Greg's younger brother, is old enough to "lose" his baby blanket, worn down to "a couple of pieces of yarn held together by boogers." And Rodrick is still clueless enough to think his band, Loded Diper, will win the heart of Holly's hot and bratty older sister, Heather (Melissa Roxburgh).
What's new here is Greg's disconnect from his long-suffering dad, played with commitment and comic skill by Steve Zahn. Dad's the one who can't quite figure out how to disconnect the video game so that Greg is forced to play outdoors -- so he unplugs the whole TV.
Dad enlists Greg in his Civil War re-enactment company -- and the South rises again. He takes the boy fishing, only to find he's squeamish at the sight of worms. He gets a dog, hoping the kid will learn responsibility. The dog takes over the house. And Dad re-joins his old Wilderness Explorer troop so that Greg will learn to camp.
None of it works. "We have nothing in common," father and son admit.
Dad wants his boys to be on a par with a jerk-jock neighbor's kids. Good luck with that.
Greg only wants to play video games and impress Holly, and the lengths he goes to lead to his biggest mistakes.
But that's what Kinney's books and these movies manage to teach, in between the exaggerated misadventures of childhood. Make mistakes, but own up to them. Treat people with courtesy, even nerdy parents who want to play "I Love You Because" games with their spoiled only child.
And if you're raising your kids right, nothing will sting them more than admitting you're disappointed in something they've done.
"Dog Days" is not the best of the "Wimpys," but Bostick is still a laugh a minute as Rodrick, and for an hour the laughs come quick and sure -- slapstick stuff, mostly.
And for parents and their tweens, that's enough to keep this, the kid-friendliest film franchise of them all, from being a disappointment.
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: DOG DAYS
2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Peyton List, Steve Zahn
DIRECTOR: David Bowers
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
RATING: PG for some rude humor.
THE LOWDOWN: The Wimpy Kid gets into more trouble on his summer vacation.