As the new movie "Diary of a Wimpy Kids: Dog Days" begins, protagonist Greg Keffley tells the camera his main objective for the summer between seventh and eighth grades: play video games as often as possible.
However, Greg quickly cautions the audience that his gaming-all-the-time goal faces a formidable foe in the form of his father's outdoorsy philosophy that "summertime is for real games, not video games."
And therein lies something of an annual conundrum for parents and children alike: What is the best implementation of summer recess for families with school-aged children? More to the point, should summertime facilitate decompression and unencumbered fun, or else foster self-growth and family unity?
"Dog Days," the third cinematic adaptation of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" franchise based on Jeff Kinney's popular illustrated novels of the same name, deftly alternates between shallow pre-teen humor and deeper summer-centric themes. That combination makes "Dog Days" not only a movie that upper elementary- and intermediate-aged kids can easily enjoy, but also a prism for singling out recurring messages Hollywood projects about the multifaceted relationship between families and summertime.
Early in "Dog Days," Greg (Zachary Gordon) joins his best friend Rowley Jefferson's family for an overnight trip to their seaside vacation home. Although Greg initially thinks it could be a fun respite, the episode ultimately reminds Greg that his own family — warts and all — isn't so bad after all.
Rowley (Robert Capron) is an only child with rich parents who pamper him and openly encourage him to talk about his feelings. (The Jefferson family likes to play a game that involves flicking a board-game spinner, and then directing a proclamation of "I love you because " to the person the spinner is pointing at once it stops.) Greg — a middle child who has to compete with two brothers for attention from his relatively volatile parents — soon realizes the Jeffersons' overprotective parenting style makes him feel claustrophobic and is something he'd much rather do without.
A similar dynamic is also portrayed in the family-friendly films "The Great Outdoors" (1988) and "Cheaper by the Dozen 2" (2005). Although in both instances the protagonist is an adult (John Candy and Steve Martin, respectively), the two films each involve a summertime vacation that exposes the main character to a wealthier family with an alternative, apparently superior approach to domesticity. And in both cases, the protagonist discovers that the seemingly "shinier" family is no better than his own imperfect-but-loving nuclear unit.
A significant portion of "Dog Days" — as much as 25 percent, perhaps — takes place either in a pool or next to one. The pool scenes portray children enjoying a dose of temporary autonomy apart from their families while still coexisting within the larger "community" of fellow swimmers.
Humor, though, is never very far away during pool play in the third "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movie. At one point Greg manages to lose his swim trunks while jumping off the high dive, and his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) pretends to be in distress so that he can be rescued by an attractive female lifeguard. Unfortunately for Rodrick, the pretty lifeguard is derelict in her duties — and so instead of receiving his intended rescue, Rodick is pulled from the pool by a muscular man who immediately administers mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
In "The Sandlot" (1993), baseball is the primary summer pastime that a group of boys pursues. However, the movie's most memorable scene also features a feigned drowning and some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But in contrast to Rodrick's misadventure, the bespectacled boy Squints is pulled from the pool by a beautiful lady lifeguard in "The Sandlot" — and Squints subsequently kisses his rescuer as she attempted to administer some lifesaving techniques.
Greg's father, Frank, is a benignly eccentric man. Frank (Steve Zahn) steals several scenes with an assortment of offbeat parenting techniques that include literally pulling the plug on any television or video games in the Keffley house, dragging Greg to a Civil War reenactment and adopting a full-grown dog on a whim.
Yet despite the fact they're both full of quirks, Frank and Greg don't enjoy a particularly strong relationship throughout most of "Dog Days." All of that changes, though, when Greg's Boy Scout-equivalent Wilderness Explorers Troop 133 embarks on its weeklong summer campout with Frank serving as assistant troop leader.
The catalyst that finally solidifies their paternal bond is the realization they share a deep disdain for outdoor camping — an epiphany made possible by father and son spending quality time together.
At-a-glance: 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days'
MPAA Rating: PG for some rude humor
Deseret News recommendation: ages 8 and up
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Opens: Aug. 3 nationwide
Bottom line: The "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" film franchise really hits its stride with "Dog Days," the third installment. The plot follows the summertime adventures of prospective eighth grader Greg Keffley at places like scout camp and the community swimming pool. A majority of elementary- and intermediate-aged children will thoroughly enjoy this movie, and enough inter-generational humor exists to ensure non-narcoleptic adults stay awake.