Ramona and Beezus
Film is simple and safe: Could use more of books’ spit and grit
One of the best things about watching your child learn to read is flashing back to all the books you loved as a kid, and knowing you’ll soon get a chance to share them. For many parents, at the top of the list of early favorite authors is Beverly Cleary.
In a writing career that goes back 60 years, the former librarian (now 94) has produced dozens of bestsellers, chief among them a series of easy-to-read chapter books starring Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy, and a spinoff series starring Henry’s Klickitat Street neighbors, Ramona and Beezus. The latter pair — volatile sisters six years apart — are front and center in the new big-screen “Ramona and Beezus,’’ a throwback dramedy every bit as wholesome as its source material.
In all other ways, though, “Ramona and Beezus’’ the movie, should not be confused with “Beezus and Ramona’’ the book.
Since the filmmakers wanted an older Ramona (age 9, played by newcomer Joey King) and a teenage Beezus (played by Disney Channel pop princess Selena Gomez), they cobbled their story from Cleary’s later works, sampling most heavily from “Ramona and Her Father,’’ “Ramona and Her Mother,’’ “Ramona Quimby, Age 8,’’ “Ramona Forever,’’ and “Ramona’s World.’’ What results is a narrative that rings familiar — Ramona’s dad loses his job; comic mishaps ensue when she tries to bolster the family finances — but will be hard for purists to place or warm to, and that disconnect doesn’t help an overly mannered adaptation in which the worst calamity is a car doused in house paint.
King looks and acts like a Norman Rockwell-ized Ramona, way too cute to deliver the spit and grit of Cleary’s female Dennis the Menace. Hers is a girl gone mild. Not that she’s to blame. Screenwriters Laurie Craig (“Ella Enchanted’’) and Nick Pustay (nothing you’d remember) have reached no higher than a “Punky Brewster’’ episode. Director Elizabeth Allen (“Aquamarine’’) struggles to define her movie — not an easy task with vanilla Vancouver standing in for Portland, Ore., and the action stranded in a generic era that’s supposed to be timeless but only succeeds in being flavorless.
Allen’s creativity shines through, though, in Ramona’s literal flights of fancy: the daydreams of a 9-year-old who imagines she’s dangling over a canyon or soaring into outer space. The director’s use of stop-motion animation delivers the personality that the rest of her movie doesn’t. These brief episodes are intentionally crude, like the artworks of a semi-talented child, which isn’t exactly original but is effective.
The rest of the cast tries hard to achieve liftoff. Gomez makes a likable (if too model-pretty) Beezus, so nicknamed when the young Ramona had trouble pronouncing the given name of her straight-A perfect sister, Beatrice. Bridget Moynahan is convincing as the girls’ mom, and John Corbett, as the unemployed-but-ever-cheery superdad, is at least less out of place here than he was in the desert quicksand of “Sex and the City 2.’’ Ginnifer Goodwin fans won’t be surprised that she’s too good for the part of Aunt Bea, Ramona’s mentor and ally, who spends most of her time pretending she will not end up back with old flame Hobart (Josh Duhamel). Sandra Oh makes a superbly uptight Mrs. Meacham, Ramona’s secretly soft-centered third-grade teacher. Most disappointing: Awkward, entertaining Henry Huggins is reduced to a panting puppy dog (they couldn’t find a golden lab so they cast Hutch Dano).
Cleary’s books weren’t masterpieces. They were simple, relatable, everyday adventures that didn’t talk down to their young readers. Her Ramona was messy, unpredictable, defiant, and frequently unapologetic. Remember the most poignant plot point of “Ramona and Her Father’’? It involved a stubborn daughter’s crusade to end her dad’s cigarette addiction, no matter how humorless he became as a result. That’s far too scary a path for today’s Hollywood family fare.
This new Ramona prefers mischief without real edge. You always know her parachute has a silver lining, even in an economic downturn. She is, above all, safe. And that makes her nowhere near as entertaining or enduring as the girl on the page.