Unless you’re able to drop an entire season at once, Netflix-style, like the new A Series of Unfortunate Events, or have such a cash cow (Harry Potter) that you can lock actors in for eight movies and make one every year or two, the inherent difficulty of making a franchise about kid characters is obvious: the actors grow up. Diary of a Wimpy Kid gave it a good shot: based on a best-selling series of 12 books, the movie series managed to crank out three films relatively quickly in the space of three years, all yielding decent returns. The first did best, with $64 million domestic on a $15 million budget; the sequels declined slightly to around the $50 million mark on a $22 million budget.
A fourth film was initially ruled unlikely due to the cast aging, but the prospect of easily doubling their money again appealed enough to Fox that the studio’s doing a full reboot with a totally new cast…for the ninth book in the series. On a $22 million budget, presuming the core fan base remains and that families want a counter-programming option for Fox’s other big release this week (the decidedly family unfriendly Alien: Covenant), it ought to bring in about the same as its predecessors. The cast were never really the draw, after all, with a young Chloe Moretz and Steve Zahn the biggest names attached to part one; while there may be some curiosity among folks my age to see Alicia Silverstone playing the mom this time around, it is once more the concept that is king.
My only prior experience with the cinematic iteration was seeing the second film, Rodrick Rules, and while Devon Bostick (The 100) made a positive impression as bad-but-not-evil big brother Rodrick, to say the movie itself was mostly garbage would be kind, since garbage is often somewhat rewarding if you like to watch raccoons approach. Though it and the two subsequent movies including this one all share the same director, David Bowers, I have to admit he’s gotten better; but really, the only place to go was up.
For parents, The Long Haul will immediately bring to mind better movies like A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Like the former, it wants to show us that chaotic family times make for great memories nonetheless; like the latter, it has a message about how the family that goes through hell together can dish it out as a team when the time is right. Unfortunately, like too many other kids’ movies these days, it feels the need to layer on the defecation, vomit and splatter jokes that the filmmakers seem to think are necessary to keep the young ones’ attention.
Updating the 2014 novel to make it somewhat trendier, The Long Haul sees Greg (Jason Drucker) accidentally becoming an embarrassing viral meme after an encounter with an errant diaper. Determined to become known for something else so as to clear his name, he plans to take a detour from an upcoming family road trip in order to attend a video game convention and meet his YouTube idol Mac Digby (Joshua Hoover), hoping he can appear on one of the Let’s Play champion’s viral videos.
Director Bowers couldn’t have known that by the time this film actually came out, several gaming video hosts like PewDiePie, on whom Digby is loosely based, would be in trouble for bigoted, alt-right-ish content and remarks. But that’s an extra meta-layer of humor parents needn’t explain to their children.
Anyway, Greg’s plans seem briefly thwarted when Mom (Silverstone) declares a ban on all smartphones and devices. Yes, even the phone and laptop that belong to Dad (Tom Everett Scott), who needs them to work remotely, making his wife seem just a touch tyrannical. But nothing will stop her from getting to Meemaw’s birthday celebration, or forcing the family to enjoy time together, even if it kills them all (it won’t; this is a PG movie. But they do encounter lots of trouble). Along the way, Greg manages to antagonize another family on a parallel journey, whom he dubs “the Beardos,” because the patriarch (Chris Coppola) is basically Bluto from a Popeye animated short. He has to be portrayed that broadly, because otherwise the image of a big hairy fat man chasing around a little boy in his underwear and threatening him would be sincerely disturbing…especially since they end up accidentally sleeping in the same bed together at one point.