The scale is smaller but the laughs are bigger in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, a sequel that not only feels more cohesive than its playfully anarchic predecessor, but also has a slightly wider appeal thanks to an increased focus on parents and older siblings. While kids are chuckling at the epic battle of wills being waged between headstrong middle-schooler Greg Heffley and his mischievous older brother, Rodrick, parents will laugh knowingly at the strained efforts of the boys' put-upon mom and dad to help the warring siblings find common ground. And though innocent adolescent shenanigans may take center stage for much of the film, there's an underlying sweetness to this well-crafted follow-up that viewers of all ages will appreciate.
As Greg (Zachary Gordon) braves his first days of seventh grade, his parents (Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris) make a noble yet ill-advised attempt to help him forge a stronger bond with his prankish older brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick), who takes twisted delight in tormenting his unsuspecting younger sibling at every opportunity. Meanwhile, at school, Greg begins to develop a crush on pretty new girl Holly Hills (Peyton List), which quickly leads to an ongoing feud with his old pal Chirag (Karan Brar). Although the brotherly bond between Greg and Rodrick is momentarily strengthened as they scramble to cover up evidence of a massive party staged in their parents' absence, it all falls apart when the secret gets out, and Rodrick gets banned from playing with his band, Löded Diper, in a big upcoming talent show. As a result, Rodrick vows to do everything in his power to make Greg's life miserable. But later, as Greg's unaffected best pal, Rowley (Robert Capron), prepares to wow the talent-show audience with his magic act, his assistant gets cold feet, prompting Greg to make a decision that could cost him his reputation in front of the entire student body, though it may be just the thing to help regain Rodrick's trust.
Whether it's due to the fact that the writers of the first film were pared down by half for this sequel (gone are Jackie and Jeff Filgo, leaving Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah to shoulder screenplay duties), the efforts of animation veteran David Bowers in the director's chair, or simply stronger source material, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules displays a sweetness and sincerity that was sorely lacking in the original installment. Thankfully it doesn't come at the expense of playfulness; as the war between brothers gets under way, the movie maintains an endearing adolescent energy that never lets up. The fact that the character of Greg is a bit more sympathetic this time around helps to draw viewers in more than the first installment did, and though Rodrick can indeed be a force to be reckoned with, the moments where the two brothers connect carry a warmth that anyone with a sibling will immediately recognize. Young co-star Capron is once right on the mark as the friend any middle-schooler would be lucky to have, and larger roles for Zahn and Harris lead to some amusing running gags as the parents struggle to maintain control over their increasingly chaotic household.
Picking up from original director Thor Freudenthal, Bowers infuses Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules with just enough visual flair to maintain our constant attention as editor Troy Takaki keeps the action flowing at a fun pace. If the creative forces behind the Diary of a Wimpy Kid adaptations can maintain this kind of giddy energy, it will be a real treat to see how the rest of the series pans out. With a little luck, they'll manage to get the rest of the films produced before Greg and his pals start showing five-o'clock shadows on the playground.