Famed writer and cartoonist, Jeff Kinney, is "inverting" classic holiday story elements for the new film Diary of a Wimpy Kid Christmas: Cabin Fever (now on Disney+), with Greg Heffley voiced by Wesley Kimmel.
"You need a heartwarming story," Kinney told Yahoo Canada about what the key components of a great holiday story include. "It needs to be pure ... and I think that you really need to stress ... the importance of family."
For Diary of a Wimpy Kid Christmas: Cabin Fever, Kinney has taken Greg and put him in a bit of a Christmas nightmare, adding some kid-friendly horror to the holiday mix.
When we first see Greg, he's stressed because he's counting down the days that he has to be on his best behaviour, in order to get the game console he wants for Christmas.
But there's panic when Greg accidentally causes a snow plow to break down, with his friend Rowley Jefferson (Spencer Howell), and he has to try to cover up his mistake in the days before the holiday.
Things get more complicated when a huge storm leaves Greg and his family completely snowed in, stuck in their home, setting up a bit of a different approach to Christmas.
"The worst thing for Greg, after he gets in trouble, is to be locked inside with his family, with the walls closing in," Kinney said. "I was having a little bit of fun with it, trying to make a different kind of Christmas story, and hopefully I succeeded."
While Greg is stuck at home, he's being watched by Elfriendo, quite a creepy looking old doll, from his mother's childhood, and as the story goes, Elfriendo reports any child's bad behaviour to Santa.
"Something that's a little bit fun about this movie is that there's an element of horror," Kinney said. "We have this character named Elfriendo, he's an elf [doll] that watches over Greg."
"You kind of wonder, is he alive? Is he not alive? And so that was fun, because in a good movie you should do everything, you should make people laugh and cry, and feel scared. ... [He's got] a stitched grin, which is kind of horrifying. In a way, it's straight out of a horror movie. I wanted to make sure that his eyes moved, because ... if they just moved a little bit, it kind of makes you a little bit nervous."
Greg Heffley is an 'exaggerated' version of Jeff Kinney as a child
In terms of where the story for Diary of a Wimpy Kid Christmas: Cabin Fever started, a book that was originally released in 2011, Kinney explained that it all started from the author and cartoonist pulling from his own childhood.
"I started with where I used to be as a kid, which was that the holidays were stressful, because I wanted to get that one big gift and I knew that to get it I had to be good," he said.
"The same thing happens with Greg, but of course, in the Wimpy Kid story, in Cabin Fever, Greg does something really bad, accidentally, he damages a snowplow, which kicks the whole movie into gear. That's where I sort of departed from my real life into this fictional world."
More generally, Kinney sees Greg, the flawed and funny protagonist of the Wimpy Kid franchise, as an "exaggerated version" of his 12 or 13-year-old self.
"A flawed character, a person who definitely should not be recording their life's moments in a diary for posterity," Kinney said.
"The point of a cartoon character is that they stay the same and that our relationship to the characters stay the same. So when you think of Donald Duck, or Bart Simpson, these are characters that have been around forever, but we know what we're going to get with those characters."
'I try to honour the kids that I'm writing for'
Continuing to bring Wimpy Kid stories from the books to screen has been an "exciting" journey for Kinney.
"Your words have real power," he said. "Like in my first line of the movie, I could say, 'open on a snowy neighbourhood,' and that's all I could say, and then some people in Canada, some animators, have to design the neighbourhood, to design the snow, to create the action in the scene, all just based on that one sentence from me."
"So I think screenwriting is really the most exciting type of writing, because you can create worlds with your words."
Having had such success with Wimpy Kid, having been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, in addition to being a New York Times bestselling author, Kinney really loves making content for kids.
"I think something like 90, 95 per cent of books that get published don't break out, don't have success, and so the fact that I get to write these books, I'm on book 18 now, is a big privilege," he said.
"I try to honour the kids that I'm writing for, to make sure that the quality of my writing is as high as I can make it. ... I never want the books to feel out of date. So I try to project 10 years, 20 years into the future and say, will these stories still be the same. I think most of what happens in Cabin Fever could happen to a kid 20 years from now. ... That's always my goal, to make stories, whether on the on the page or on the screen, that people can relate to."
Where to watch 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid Christmas: Cabin Fever'
Diary of a Wimpy Kid Christmas: Cabin Fever is now available to watch on Disney+.
The streaming platform also has the 2010 Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie and the 2021 animated movie of the same name. There is also the Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules film, and the animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Roderick Rules movie.
Disney+ also has Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days.