Chances are… when you leave the theater after watching the third film in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise, you’ll hear parents throwing around words like ‘cute’ and ‘fun’. And the kids will be chucking their buddies on the shoulder and shouting ‘hilarious!’ and ‘awesome!’

It’s very easy to see why Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days would get the middle school crowd all giddy. Aside from the fact that it’s all about summer vacation (and is the first of the three Wimpy Kid flicks to actually be released during summer), our little boy Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is growing up, and the days of him being a petulant little jerk are (for the most part) in his rear-view mirror.

Believe it or not, he’s actually a reasonably likeable and sympathetic character… sometimes.

Combining elements from the third and fourth books (The Last Straw and Dog Days) of Jeff Kinney’s wildly popular series, the movie centers on Greg’s quest to woo the comely Holly (Peyton List) during the summer before he becomes a big-man eighth grader.

In typical Wimpy Kid fashion, though, that’s only (a small) part of the story. Among the myriad of other subplots are the quest of Mr. Heffley (Steve Zahn) to get his kids off the couch and out into the sunshine, Greg’s low tolerance for the kooky parents of his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), the Heffley clan’s struggles with their new dog, and brother Rodrick’s (Devon Bostick) continuing mission to get his band Löded Diper on the map.

It’s that all-over-the-place screenplay by Maya Forbes, Gabe Sachs, and Wallace Wolodarsky that keeps Dog Days from being as successful as it could. In the end, the flick comes off more as a series of five-minute shorts (speaking of which, Greg loses his when he jumps off the high dive at the pool). And we didn’t even mention the Civil War re-enactment that doesn’t end well, the struggle over baby brother Manny’s blankie, Greg and Rowley’s ride on the ‘Cranium Shaker’, and the Sweet Sixteen party that features pyrotechnics and a chocolate fountain. And then there’s the Wilderness Explorer camping trip. And the poor pot roast.

Heck, it makes a Japanese game show look like a smoothly plotted exercise in continuity.

Thankfully, the cast has all fallen into a neat little rhythm for this third go-round, particularly Zahn, whose zany performance steals the show each and every time he’s on screen. And director David Bowers (who also helmed the second in the series) does an admirable job taking the potpourri of plots and putting together a halfway coherent movie.

It’s not destined for ‘classic’ status or even a life as a guilty pleasure, but for an escape on a hot day in August, it’s pretty cute. And fun.

3/5 stars