LOS ANGELES - Maybe it has to do with the lowered expectations surrounding something with "Dog Days" in its title being released during a traditionally less stellar time in the movie-going season, but the third installment in the "Wimpy Kid" franchise turns out to be not so wimpy after all.
Although it paints everything with the same broad sitcom strokes as its predecessor, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days," culled from the third and fourth books in Jeff Kinney's wildly successful "novel in cartoons" series, proves nimbler and truer to its origins than last year's "Rodrick Rules."
Despite the fact that this "school's out" edition is hitting theatres at a time when many kids in the country are getting ready to go back, the modestly budgeted Fox 2000 presentation should still come within spitball distance of the $53 million taken domestically by No. 2.
It's summer break in the Heffley household, and while the teenaged Greg (Zachary Gordon) is content to while away the sunny hours inside playing video games, his hapless dad, Frank (Steve Zahn) has other, father-son bonding ideas.
He's initially able to dodge working as an intern at Frank's office by pretending he already landed a job at the ritzy country club where his buddy Rowley belongs - and where his crush Holly Hills (Peyton List) hangs out - but when his dad catches on to the ruse, Greg gets dragged off on an ill-fated camping trip.
David Bowers, who also helmed "Rodrick Rules" and incoming screenwriters Maya Forbes ("The Larry Sanders Show") and Wallace Wolodarsky ("Monsters vs. Aliens") have brought the title character closer to those wimpier roots after Greg came across as a little too mean-spirited the last time out.
As again portrayed by Gordon, this time around there's more vulnerability to temper that smart-ass streak, while the story as a whole feels less episodic.
You still won't find the characters fleshed out any more substantially than Kinney's stick figures, but Zahn's unique way with a line reading or reaction keeps things benignly amusing.
Also back are Rachael Harris as Greg's just-coping mom, Devon Bostick as lazy big-brother Rodrick, and red-headed Robert Capron as his big-hearted best pal Rowley.
Shooting once again took place in Vancouver, shot back-to-back with the second film last summer, to ensure the wimpy kid didn't look more like a wimpy man.
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days," a Fox 2000 release, is rated PG for some mild rude humor and mischief. Running time: 96 minutes.