It might surprise you to hear it but I think the pre-teen demographic is one of the most underserved at the movies, especially with live action films. There are lots of films made for younger and lots made for older but rarely is something really made with them in mind. The last good film for that demographic was Disney’s Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day.While today’s film, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, isn’t as good, it has entertaining elements for its target demographic including humor, heart and fun animated sequences.
Based on the novel by James Patterson, Middle School focuses on a kid named Rafe (Griffin Gluck) who is starting at a new school under rule of Principal Dwight (Andy Daly). Rafe has lost a loved one in his life and is grieving, which has caused him to move around from school to school. Principal Dwight makes it clear to Rafe on the first day of class that he is living under a new regime with a strict rulebook. Rafe is a creative kid and finds these rules frustrating and unfair. Principal Dwight is also focused more on standardized testing than on actual learning.When Principal Dwight destroys Rafe’s artbook filled with sketches Rafe and a friend seek revenge through a series of pranks that go from silly (dying the principal’s hair brought me back to Home Alone) to creative (a post-it note display is completely impossible for him to do in one night but very pretty). I think kids will get a big kick out of these kind of pranks and the actors pull off the physical comedy well.
There was a surprising amount of heart in Middle School particularly with the family grieving over the loss of their loved one. I admit I teared up in a few moments. Lauren Graham is wonderful as usual as Rafe’s mother. I think kids will really be able to relate to what the family is going through which to me make it better than a pure slapstick film.
The animation segments are also really cool. I wish there were even a few more of them but they pop off the screen and feel like a doodle come to life. It was a creative touch I didn’t expect from this kind of movie. It kind of reminded me of the claymation in Better Off Dead.
Where the movie falters is in a plotline with Rob Riggle- a comedian I have never liked. He plays Rafe’s Mom’s fiance and is named ‘The Bear’ and is animated as an obese bear in several segments. He is right out of any ‘I’m sending these brats to boarding school” (literally) that we’ve seen in a million other movies. There is absolutely no reason to believe Mom and Bear would be together or that she would put up with him and it really dragged the movie down.
The thing is we don’t need another villain at home. Principal Dwight is more than enough to keep things going. If you think about Ferris Beuller’s Day Off his parents are kind of a non-entity and it is better that way. Edward Rooney is more than enough of an antagonist for the film to work. Andy Daly also has enough charm as Principal Dwight that he can stand on his own.
I also wish it was just a little bit funnier. There was nothing that made me laugh as hard as the DMV scene in Alexander and the Terrible Day. As it is it feels like the humor you get in a Disney Channel TV show, which isn’t bad just not hilarious.
I have a feeling critics will focus too much on the flaws of this film, so it may have a low RT score. Trust me. If you have a child in the target demographic, don’t pay attention to that. Take them. I really think they will like it. If you don’t than it is probably a pass and maybe catch it on cable or streaming later on.
It could be better but it still was a decent example of this type of formula film. Plus, the heart and creative touches made it an engaging watch.
Overall Grade- B- (If any of you see it, let me know what you think)