The third film adapted from the highly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, Dog Days doesn't have the emotional pull of the last installment in the franchise, but it's still a vast improvement over the irritating series opener.
Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) wants to spend the summer before eighth grade playing video games and maybe, if he can finagle it, getting closer to his crush Holly Hills (Peyton List). The former plan goes out the window when his dad Frank (Steve Zahn) decides to ban video games from the house. In order to connect with his young son, Frank schedules a number of fishing trips and signs the boy up for Scouts. Greg has more luck on the girlfriend front when his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) invites him to go to his family's country club, where Holly works as a tennis instructor. Soon, in order to avoid spending so much time with his dad, Greg lies to his parents and says he works at the club, a deception that his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) uses to blackmail him and gain access to the establishment.
At this point in the series all of the characters are well-defined, so there's little chance for surprise. We know Greg is a schemer with his heart in the right place, that his parents are goofy and irritable but have their kids' best interests at heart, that Rowley is a sweet doofus, and that Rodrick's rock band will show up to play loudly and badly. Director David Bowers makes sure all of the wacky supporting players get a moment to show up, and he keeps things moving with sitcom-esque efficiency, scoring more laughs from throwaway moments -- like Frank trying to get away from his wife by looking at his watchless wrist and saying he's gotta go, or Rowley giving a Belushi-worthy smile to a girl covered in chocolate -- than with the big comic set pieces. Familiarity, more than comedy, is the big selling point for this series, and in that regard Dog Days fits the bill.
The movie tries to be heartwarming when it focuses on the relationship between Greg and his dad, but the disconnect between the two never seems serious enough -- or insurmountable enough -- for us to actually invest in it. This shortcoming shouldn't be noticeable in such a frivolous piece of entertainment, but in the last film -- Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules -- Bowers and company mined the tricky emotional territory of Greg's relationships with his brother and mother, while also delivering the expected laughs. We've seen them do better than Dog Days, so we keep hoping for more, even if what's onscreen is probably enough to satisfy preteens who can't wait to check in on Greg and his friends every year.