The Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise has long established itself as a dominating force within children’s literature, with over a dozen books and multiple film adaptations. The Wimpy Kid title has garnered significant critical acclaim, and in its over 14 years of circulation, has accumulated over 200 million copies sold. With a series as iconic as this one, it’s crucial to have a figurehead pulling it all together, and dedicated, long-time readers have that in the form of author Jeff Kinney.
DiscussingFilm had the chance to sit down with Jeff Kinney, who has written every Wimpy Kid novel, to discuss his role as writer and producer on the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid reboot on Disney+. We cover the reboot’s journey from conception to streaming, what it was like translating his beloved story to animation, modifying the iconic art style, and ensuring that fans would have yet another worthy adaptation at their fingertips. The Disney+ exclusive film “manages to capture enough of the original novel’s spirit,” and much of this is thanks to Jeff Kinney’s heavy involvement.
The original Diary of a Wimpy Kid was published over 14 years ago, and there have been so many stories in this universe ever since. What’s it like to return to the original novel that started it all once again?
Jeff Kinney: It really is a privilege for me, as a writer. I wrote the first book when I was about 28 years old, and I wasn’t ready to tell stories yet. I was a good gag writer. I came from comics, so I knew how to write jokes and draw cartoons but I didn’t know how to tell stories. Now, I get to tell this story the way I would’ve liked to have told it from the very beginning.
What has it been like to work with Disney to bring this new Wimpy Kid adaptation to streaming? How involved were you in production?
Jeff Kinney: I was about as involved as you could be, I was a producer and also the writer. I worked with the actors, I got to sit in on every voice recording, and I met lots with the director. It’s been really cool working with Disney because they really want to tell good, quality stories. Something that has been really exciting about my experience is how the higher-ups at Disney watch this movie again and again, with each successive cut, because they want to be sure that this story is told as well as it can be, so I’ve been very impressed by them.
When the animated reboot was first announced in 2018, it was reported to be a series. How did the decision shift from a streaming series to a film?
Jeff Kinney: The concept initially started off as an animated, primetime holiday special. I actually wrote a script for both that and a back-to-school special. The landscape kept changing, and eventually, Disney created its own platform and bought Fox, and now here we are. It’s really changed a lot and I’m glad we’re doing features for each individual book because that’s the way I like to tell those stories.
With animation, you have the chance to translate the classic art style of the books while also mixing it up a bit. What new opportunities did this give you to shift the original designs in a cinematic way?
Jeff Kinney: In a way, what we’ve really tried to do is pull back. The directive from myself and the producers was to make sure this felt grounded in the real world. It would’ve been a mistake to tell a really cartoony story because then you might not connect to the characters that much because then it’s more abstract. We got these really strong performers who aren’t thinking about the cartoon characters at the other end of it. That’s what was really important to us. Even though we knew we were going to be in animation, we tried to keep it really grounded in reality.
What was the process like for finding the new Greg and Rowley and how did you settle on Brady Noon and Ethan William Childress?
Jeff Kinney: Those two kids really just inhabited Greg and Rowley. When I first heard their voices, courtesy of our casting director, I was like, “Yep, they’ve found them.” Greg needs to be a fast talker, a bit of a salesman, cocky, but he also needs to be vulnerable, and that’s what makes him likable. Then Rowley needs to be really innocent and pure, and we really found that in Ethan. We really lucked out on the casting.
After this film, there’s already a sequel coming next year. Where do you hope to see these new animated films go in the future?
Jeff Kinney: I think we’d all like to make lots of these films. The first five to seven Diary of a Wimpy Kid books hit on all aspects of life and about growing up, and I think we can tell lots of stories and he has lots of room to grow.
Your son has built up a sizable platform on the social media platform TikTok, garnering over 200k followers. What’s it been like seeing so many people on that app talk about their love for your novels and engage in your son’s content?
Jeff Kinney: That’s been really exciting for me, and that’s something that’s really pure. TikTok is such a good platform, it’s not toxic like a lot of other social media platforms. I’ve gotten a lot of love from that platform, which I wasn’t really expecting because a lot of the people that follow my son are grown up now, they’re in their late teens or early twenties, so it’s really nice to hear that love and know that I was such a big part of their life growing up.
For years, Greg’s story was at the focus of the Wimpy Kid series. However, recently Rowley has been given his own title of books that have allowed us to finally see his perspective. Could we possibly see that come to Disney+ later down the line?
Jeff Kinney: That’s something I really hope for! There’s a few natural fits, like Awesome Friendly Adventure is a really good fantasy story, and Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories is a good collection of short Halloween-type tales, so I’m really hoping we get to expand the Wimpy Kid universe and do more stories.
What has it been like working on a film during this pandemic age compared to your work on the previous live-action Wimpy Kid entries?
Jeff Kinney: The pandemic didn’t slow us down at all. In fact, it really made us roll up our sleeves to work because there was no reason to stop. Everyone had a computer at home and we could do everything by Zoom. If we had been doing a live-action film, we would’ve grinded to a halt and started up much slower, but I was grateful to work in this new environment where we had tools to help us work together.
What is your development process like for an animated film compared to a live-action one, was your approach much different here?
Jeff Kinney: Many of the aspects are identical. During the writing process, I certainly wasn’t thinking of animated characters, I was thinking of real people. All of the steps are the same, getting a green light after a good script, casting, and continuing to improve and develop the script. The only thing that’s really different is that you’re bringing the characters to life through animation, so you can be very precise because you control every frame.
With these characters, how do you translate them from your original work to animation, staying true to their personas while also potentially bringing in new aspects and expanding on them with this film?
Jeff Kinney: There’s no guarantee that it’s going to work, you know. My characters are two-dimensional and they don’t really suggest three-dimensional characters. It was really a leap of faith, we told ourselves we could make these things 3D characters, hope they don’t look too weird, and I think we developed a language for the characters that I really like. It’s kind of a jerky style that I really like, we’re not trying to be Pixar and render every single hair on someone’s head. I like that we’re a bit lower on the tech side because we’re trying to create a bit of a timeless feel to these stories and hopefully they all look the same.