May 19, 2017
In Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, the fourth installment of the Wimpy Kid film franchise, the Heffley family embarks on a cross-country road trip to attend the 90th birthday of the family matriarch, Meemaw. After an embarrassing moment turns the Wimpy Kid himself – middle son, Greg (Jason Drucker) – into a humiliating meme, he hatches a plan to redirect the family to a gaming convention where he believes an interaction with his favorite YouTuber will bring online redemption.
The Long Haul joins a long tradition of family road trip movies in which the members of different generations must navigate through adversities of both the travel and relationship variety while trapped together in a restricted environment. In this case, the Heffleys face everything from bathroom emergencies with no restrooms in sight to a rival family intent on impeding their progress.
The Heffley boys constantly complain about how embarrassing their parents are, prompting their mom to ask “were we this bored by our parents?” Alicia Silverstone (Clueless, Suburgatory, various Aerosmith videos) and Tom Everett Scott (That Thing You Do, Reign, La La Land) once epitomized ‘90s cool, and seeing them as run-of-the-mill, eagerly goofy parents twenty years later may be a shock for moms and dads accompanying their kids to the cinema.
Though the film captures much about being both a kid and a parent in the current cultural landscape– particularly that battle for balance between eyeballs and screens as Greg’s mom declares a No Devices rule at the trip’s outset– the dynamic between family members is uncomfortable, to say the least. Greg and his brothers are mostly at odds with each other, gleefully embarrassing or short-changing one another whenever possible, and the parents don’t seem to be on the same page about anything but an ongoing fondness for the Spice Girls.
Rather than bringing them all closer, the difficulties they face along the trip drive the relationship wedges in further. It’s only when the Heffley family unites to bring the rival family down that they are able to put aside their own differences and appreciate what they have together.
Perhaps it’s unfair to ask every movie to be “woke,” to challenge its viewers with moral lessons and encourage critical thought. And perhaps “it’s just a kids movie” anyway, so it’s excused from being scrutinized in the same way we may consider adult fare. But we (and our children) live in a post-Pete’s Dragon, post-Zootopia, post-Moana world, so we know that it is possible to inspire even the youngest viewers to want more than what movies like The Long Haul have to offer. My almost-8-year-old who accompanied me to the screening enjoyed the silliness and laughed out loud several times, but openly cringed at the way Greg and his brothers bullied each other, and said he didn’t think it was very nice of the Heffleys to try and get revenge on their rivals.
The Long Haul has plenty of gross-out gags and slapstick humor to keep its younger audience laughing, but lacks both the stand-out performances and the teachable moments that elevate “just” a kids movie to a real classic.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5