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Mortifying experiences continue in ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ sequel

Wimpy is as wimpy does.

Just ask Greg Heffley, the hapless hero of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules."

Here he is in seventh grade, and he still hasn’t figured out how to weather, let alone avoid, the myriad trials, tribulations and embarrassments he managed — just barely — to survive in sixth grade.

Which is just as it should be. After all, without all those agonizing antics, there would be no reason for this follow-up to last year’s "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

Like most sequels, this one — based on another of Jeff Kinney’s best-selling books — doesn’t quite live up to the original.

If you enjoyed the first "Wimpy Kid," however, it’s not likely that you’ll object to more of the same. Almost.

That’s because this "Wimpy Kid" splits its focus between the two poles of Greg’s existence: home and school.

At school, Greg (Zachary Gordon) hangs out with his cheerful best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron), and tries to avoid his obnoxious nemesis, Patty Ferrell (Laine MacNeil ), who’s still more than capable of pounding Greg to a pulp.

But Greg’s only got eyes for Holly Hills (Peyton List), the new girl in school. She’s obviously perfect — but will she ever notice him?

If only Greg had a big brother to advise him.

Oh, Greg’s got a big brother, all right. Alas, Rodrick (Devon Bostick) seems more interested in tormenting his little brother than helping him negotiate the mysteries of middle school.

Good old Mom (Rachael Harris) tries to encourage the kids to get along, but Rodrick’s more focused on playing drums with his basement rock band, Loded Diper .

That is, until a series of inevitably comic complications forces the two to stop feuding and try being siblings rather than rivals.

Working from Kinney’s book, returning screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah ("90210") give this sequel an even more episodic feel, with stand-alone sequences that don’t always connect with what’s come before. You could almost shuffle Greg’s inevitably mortifying experiences — at school, at church, at his grandfather’s retirement home — and they’d probably still have the same comic impact.

And director David Bowers ("Flushed Away," "Astro Boy"), taking over from the original’s Thor Freudenthal , reinforces the leisurely feel, setting a take-your-time pace that occasionally feels downright draggy.

Yet this "Wimpy Kid" retains many of the first movie’s charms. Bowers ably blends the live action with Kinney’s whimsical illustrations — and includes sly visual references to some of the original’s signature incidents.

Most of all, this "Wimpy Kid" manages to re-create the just-kids innocence of the first movie. Despite the presence of computers, video games and other familiar high-tech trappings, it’s refreshing to watch a movie that has the same relaxed, genial humor as a vintage "Leave It to Beaver" episode. (Although Wally never would have been as mean to Beaver as Rodrick is to Greg; Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver never would have allowed that.)

Speaking of parents, the dependably quirky Steve Zahn — once again playing the patriarch of the Heffley clan — doesn’t get much opportunity to demonstrate his comedic chops. But his slow-burn facial expressions provide a sly, silent counterpoint to the kids’ interactions with their mom. And Harris gives the family’s no-nonsense matriarch a welcome goofy touch.

Fittingly, however, "Wimpy Kid" is about the kids — and they’re as endearingly amusing as ever, from Bostick’s nicely nasty turn as rotten Rodrick to Gordon’s smarty-pants bravado as the irrepressible, indefatigable Greg.

He might be wimpy, but he’s good fun — and so, happily, is this sequel.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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