Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2021)

Content Caution

MediumKids
LightTeens
LightAdults
two boys shaking hands in Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Back in preschool, Greg Heffley may have sung and danced to a little rhyme called “A Farmer in the Dell,” where the farmer would take the wife, and the wife a child, and so on, until “the cheese stands alone.”

Well, no one sings “A Farmer in the Dell” at Westmore Middle School. But the cheese—and more importantly, anyone who touches that cheese—does indeed stand alone.

Kids call the whole act of touching, appropriately enough, the “cheese touch,” and it’s Westmore’s version of leprosy (though arguably more disgusting). Touch that moldy, smelly piece of Swiss fromage that’s been lurking on the basketball courts since time immemorial, and no one will dare approach you. Ever. And it’s just one of many perils found in the social obstacle course known as middle school. Clearly, Greg and his best friend, Rowley, will need to use all their wiles to survive the next three years.

But will they be able to survive together?

Rowley isn’t exactly middle school material. He still stores his bunny slippers under his bed. He’s a big fan of Joshie, a European pop star whose fans (according to Greg) are “only 6-year-old girls.” And on top of all of that, Rowley’s just so sincere. So nice. Might as well slather honey on the guy and throw him to a pack of bears.

But maybe—maybe, with a little coaching—Greg can prepare Rowley for this new social challenge. Don’t make eye contact. Steer clear of the second-floor bathroom. Stay away from the cheese. And if they’re really lucky, why, they might even find a place to sit in the lunchroom.

But perhaps they shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Positive Elements

Under its cynical skin and at its surprisingly tender heart, this Disney+ movie is about friendship. And Greg’s mother tells us as much in its opening minutes.

“That’s all you need to get by in this world,” she tells Greg. “One good friend.”

Rowley and Greg are good friends. Middle school puts a strain on that friendship, certainly—but it never truly breaks it.

For that, you can thank good-hearted Rowley more than Greg, the movie’s narrator and de facto protagonist. While Greg often comes across as pretty selfish and peevish, Rowley’s sincerity and niceness smooth over many a rough moment.

But when their friendship seems to be on the verge of snapping apart forever, a sacrificial act by Greg saves it. And while that sacrifice comes with a caveat (that we’ll get into in the “Other Negative Content” section), certainly the spirit of the act was where it should have been—even if the letter of the act was lacking.

Spiritual Elements

Greg, Rowley and Manny—Greg’s 3-year-old brother—go trick-or-treating for Halloween. They take a short-cut down Snake Road, and Rowley worries about them running into a rumored goat-man who frequents the road.

There’s a reference to a “church organist.”

Sexual Content

None, really, though another kid—Fregley—invites Greg to look at his “secret freckle.”

Rowley does receive quite a bit of attention from some middle school girls, but whether he or Greg are even interested in girls at this point is really an open question. We also hear there are no doors on the stalls in the second-floor boys’ bathroom.

Violent Content

Greg and Rowley play a game called Rumble Bike, and they often fly into bushes or lawns at the end of a dangerous run. Most of the time, the two aren’t seriously hurt. But Rowley breaks his arm following one painful run.

Bullies are a constant peril at Westmore (as they likely are at many middle schools). We see kids tripped, pushed into lockers and otherwise harassed. Three high schoolers chase Greg, Rowley and Manny in their car on Halloween, chucking water balloons at them. (Their pursuit ends when the car hits a rock and careens into a ditch.) Later, the teens corner Rowley and Greg and force them to “pay” for their Halloween antics.

Rowley and Greg nearly get into a fistfight. Greg’s father mistakenly dumps a bucket of water on the two boys. Greg makes a stab at becoming the school newspaper’s cartoonist, and one of his strips includes a man standing in a pool of acid. Greg tricks Rowley into slapping himself.

Crude or Profane Language

None, but characters do insult each other by calling them “nerds,” “punks” or “dummies.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

We see a sign that says, “Don’t smoke. It’s a joke.” Someone deals with a really serious sugar high.

Other Negative Elements

Another cartoon of Greg’s involves some dialogue about a “butt-crack.” Fregley chases Greg around with a booger on his finger (and later gets Greg to touch it), and someone picks his nose. The disgusting slice of cheese (and its effects) is depicted and discussed quite often. A middle schooler covers the entirety of a water fountain spout with his mouth. Someone carves something into a desk.

Greg is really struggling with what it means to be a good person as he begins middle school—much to his mother’s horror. He lies to her repeatedly and forces Rowley to lie to his parents. When Rowley asks for a video game back, Greg (who’s at his lowest ebb with Rowley’s friendship) says, “I’ve had it for a while, so it’s kind of mine now.”

When Rowley experiences a surge of popularity because of his broken arm, Greg tries to get some of that middle school love for himself by first telling everyone he broke that arm (which was true) and then bandaging his own hand in toilet paper and trying to pretend he’s also hurt. (It doesn’t work.)

[Spoiler Warning] Greg’s mother is particularly aghast at Greg’s newfound habit of lying. She encourages him to start trying to discern what the “right” thing is in any given circumstance. But when bullies force Rowley to touch/lick/eat part of that infamous slice of cheese, Greg believes that the “right” thing is lying again—telling the school that the bullies made him contact the cheese (in ways the movie doesn’t specify). It was an act of sacrifice, to be sure—earning him the status of middle school pariah. But it was also a lie. Families might have very different takes on whether Greg’s sacrificial act was “right” or not.

Conclusion

Greg Heffley just might be the preteen set’s introduction to a familiar entertainment character that’s growing ever more common: the antihero.

For nearly 20 years, Greg—this selfish, jealous, sometimes paranoid protagonist—has been a fixture online, in books (16 of them at last count) and movies (four live-action films before this one-hour animated reboot). He exhibits a lot of behaviors that parents do their best to curb in their kids—not encourage.

Greg’s often not a good person, nor is he meant to be.

“A lot of characters in children’s literature are heroes,” creator Jeff Kinney told The Guardian. “Greg is not a hero. He’s full of imperfections, and having a flawed character is a little bit more interesting than having a character that always does the right thing.”

But those flaws might be confusing for some who are unfamiliar with the antihero trope. And Greg has sometimes raised the eyebrows and occasionally the hackles of adult readers. On YouTube, for instance, Mumkey Jones alleged that Greg exhibits 12 of the 13 traits used to diagnose sociopathy.

Which brings us to Disney+’s take on the franchise—which may be something of an improvement.

Greg is, again, not a hero here. He’s full of flaws indeed. But the arc of this story reveals those flaws for what they are: elements of Greg’s character that he needs to improve upon. And he’s certainly not the aggressively unlikable character we saw in the live-action 2010 movie of the same name.

And there’s another important difference between this movie and the 2010 one: It’s cleaner.

Bob Hoose was not a fan of the original, emphasizing how “wincingly clueless” the main character was, how negative the story felt and how ooky its obsession with bathroom humor was. He wrote:

“Seeing a stick figure accidentally peeing on his brother or sitting on a school toilet is quite a different experience from seeing kid actors doing the same thing in living color. And when those embarrassing bits are mixed with an endless goopy stream of booger-urine-poop-fart jokes, you very quickly begin longing for a notebook of your own to keep you otherwise occupied.”

This version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid doesn’t completely flush the bathroom humor. But it does mostly keep the lavatory door closed. And while it’s certainly not shy about embracing a gross-out gag (as the slice of cheese attests), the movie concentrates far more on the relationships these characters have with one another. It’s weighed more toward the heart and mind and less on bodily functions.

It exhibits a bit more maturity than some entries in the franchise do—which makes the movie more mature than its primary character, and arguably more digestible than middle school often is.

Still, parents should be mindful of the movie. If your family decides to watch it together, talk through some of the issues the movie might raise. Is it ever good to lie? How is Greg a good friend … and how is he not? It might even be a good opportunity to ask your own middle schoolers about how their school experience compares.

Disney+’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a slice above—way above—the cheese found at Westmore Middle School. But be mindful. You should never touch any movie—even a pretty good one—without a bit of caution.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.