(Michael Loccisano, Getty…)
Think of it as a grungy schoolyard version of poetic justice.
Last year, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," an irreverent, big-hearted middle-school comedy, whipped the blotchy, highly touted comic-book film "Kick-Ass" at the box office. (Both films shared a precocious female lead, Chloe Moretz.)
This weekend, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules" opens the same day as "Sucker Punch," another gaudy action fantasy. Maryland-born and -bred Jeff Kinney, who created the original "Wimpy Kid" graphic-novel series, isn't worried.
"It's a weird thing," he said over the phone from Los Angeles. "I feel completely relaxed, because I've seen the film, and I know it's good and I've seen audiences responding to it. I think it's going to surprise people — again."
Kinney doesn't view films like "Kick-Ass" and "Sucker Punch" as direct competition, even though studios tend to promote any comic-book film short of "Watchmen" to high-schoolers and middle-school kids alike.
"I don't know how the studios work things out that way," Kinney said, "but I think they look for a time when there's not much competition in your particular area, and family comedy is our area. … It's exciting to think we might have a hit here."
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules" continues the misadventures of Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), the scrawny, confused Everyboy who navigates the mysteries of late childhood and early adolescence with clumsy bravado and self-serving mischief that backfires. The first film focused on Greg's friendship with Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron), a good-natured naif. The second film shifts its attention to the brotherly love-hate Greg shares with Rodrick (Devon Bostik), the bully without a cause — and hard-rock legend in his mind — who happens to be Greg's elder sibling.
"You can't play Rodrick just as a bully, because people would tune out," Kinney said. "Devon plays him as a goofball antagonist."
Kinney continued: "These movies are a little bit anachronistic for this kind of story, because you have human beings playing the characters. They're not computer-generated. And we've got middle-schoolers cast as middle-schoolers, which is even rarer, because usually you have 25-year-olds playing high school freshmen."
Doesn't that put pressure on the moviemakers to get the whole series out now, before the child actors experience more growth spurts? Kinney gave a no-and-yes answer. "It turns out that something particular to middle-schoolers is that they do change very quickly. I think that Zach and Robert both grew about 4 inches between last year and this year; they're growing fast. It didn't hurt this movie. But we do need to step it up if we're going to tell more Wimpy stories."
It was easier to find an emotional through-line for this chapter of Greg Heffley's comic saga. "Sibling rivalry is something most kids can relate to — at least most kids with siblings — and there's something sort of natural there. Greg, as much as he battles with his brother, also wants, secretly, to be his brother. I think audiences can relate to that."
What makes Greg Heffley such a stitch — and so immediately accessible to fellow middle-schoolers — is that he's a welter of contradictions who constantly outsmarts himself and often offends others. Some adult readers worried that their kids would emulate him — and moviegoing parents can be even bigger worry-warts.
"Greg is definitely a flawed protagonist," Kinney said. "But I think that he's a flawed protagonist in the Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer vein, where the author, the creator, trusts the audience to figure that out for themselves. I think that he's wonderfully flawed in the way that all human beings are."
The movie series has changed directors, from Thor Freudenthal to David Bowers ("Flushed Away"). But it has retained the rough-hewn style of Kinney's original "novel in cartoons," breaking easily into animation. The style came easy to both directors, since each has animation in his blood.
Peyton List plays a new addition, Holly Hills. "Peyton is just this precious girl — definitely the kind of girl that every boy would have a crush on. I feel really lucky that we got her for the film; she's very sweet in real life and on the screen as well. Actually, in the movie she's more approachable than she is in the books. To Greg, girls are completely unreachable; his world centers around boys, and girls are on the other side of the glass wall."
Kinney sometimes feels as if he's living in glass walls — or at least "as if my life is like 'The Truman Show.' Sometimes I feel it can't get any more silly or preposterous." But he said his home life in Plainville, Mass., "is so ordinary, that the extremes are really fun to experience." He's kept his day job at the kid-friendly website, Poptropica.com.
Kinney said that he's had all sorts of people from his Maryland past "reach out to me on Facebook and things like that, yet I can't quite keep up because of all that's going on. But I can tell you something fun about my Maryland connection. There was a Greg Heffley balloon in the Macy's [Thanksgiving] Day Parade this year. I made sure the colors used in the balloon were white, black, yellow and red. That was definitely a nod to my years at the University of Maryland."