Surprisingly, the release of Ramona
and Beezus marks the first time that Beverly Cleary's hugely popular
and beloved series of children's novels have been adapted for the
big screen. Ramona Quimby, a precocious misfit who never seems
to do the right thing in the eyes of others, is one of the indelible
characters of children's literature - a young, tomboyish, imaginative
girl, always concerned about the consequences of her actions.
Most authors of children's books portray children as reverse extrapolations
of adults - imbuing them with an uneasy pairing of infantile dialogue
and unlikely levels of wisdom. Cleary has always been different.
She has a true respect for her characters, treating them as whole, autonomous
human beings who actually sound and act like children. This film
adaptation retains that distinctive respect for children, and effectively
captures the spirit of the novels.
Drawing story elements from several
of Cleary's books, Ramona and
Beezus finds eight-year-old Ramona Quimby (Joey King) and her older
sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) awaiting a group of workers to "cut a
hole" in their house. Their parents (played by John Corbett
and Bridget Moynihan) have planned to add a new bedroom onto their Portland
home to make room for a new arrival - the girls' new sister, Roberta.
But everything comes to a screeching halt when Mr. Quimby loses his
job; his long struggle to find a new position is not easy, and the strain
is especially hard on Ramona, who winds up feeling responsible for much
of their situation. Through ingenious and creative means, Ramona
helps restore balance to the Quimby family household despite the economic
hardship, with the romantic misadventures of Beezus (who can't make
any progress with Henry Huggins) and the girls' Aunt Bea (Ginnifer
Goodwin) (who can't resist the advances of a former flame) in the
Beezus features a good lead performance by Joey King as the put-upon,
whimsical, inventive Ramona. She has a breezy naturalism that
avoids the precocity of most "kid acting." Credit is also due to
director Elizabeth Allen, not only for ably handling all the members
of her juvenile cast (Jason Spevack is also good as Ramona's neighbor
and friend Howie Kemp), but also for envisioning Ramona's many flights
of fancy as Gondry-esque visual experiences that utilize a cut-out,
school project aesthetic. However, one regret is that these fantasy
sequences are used heavily in the first half of the picture, and are
absent from the second half. Had they been more consistently distributed,
it would have helped maintain this very important aspect of Ramona's
character. Still, Allen keeps up an amiable tone throughout the
movie while allowing the family's predicament (Mr. Quimby's joblessness)
to retain a timely, topical edge that reminds us of the stakes they face.
In a couple of key roles, casting is
an issue. Selena Gomez looks nothing like Joey King's sister,
and although the older girl's performance is fine, her selection as
Beezus is a little mystifying. Also, as Mrs. Quimby, Bridget Moynihan
can't help but look like anything but a mother of three. Beyond
her looks, she just doesn't evince much maternal warmth.
On balance, however, the rest of the
cast is fine. Corbett converts his casual, beach-bum routine into
a "cool dad" character who clearly loves his family. As Ramona's
beloved Aunt Bea, Ginnifer Goodwin brings a good deal of sweetness and
humor, and even Josh Duhamel - as Bea's love interest - manages
to eke out some charm. The film's conclusion, while a bit too
sugary and tidy, reinforces the film's themes - particularly the
value of resilient individuality and dogged persistence. Ramona
and Beezus wasn't made for 33-year-old male misanthropes, but
it got through to me on a certain level nonetheless. For families
with young children, it is solid, useful entertainment that does not
pander to or infantilize its audience. Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.