Rated G for some thematic elements (appropriate for all ages)
Run time: 104 minutes Directed by: Elizabeth AllenWritten by: Laurie Craig, Nick Pustav Starring: Joey King, Selena Gomez, John Corbett, Bridget Moynahan, Josh Duhamel, Sandra Oh
It might be a slight, spacey puff of a movie but it elegantly captures the gentle whimsy and precocious spirit of Beverly Cleary’s young heroine. In an age where most children’s films are just video games with the errant luxury of dialogue, this one hearkens back to a time where kids could have misadventures and they were a perfectly suitable replacement for real ones.
Ramona Quimby is a fearsomely imaginative and disaster-prone 9 year old who lives on Klickitat Street with her mother and father and her 15 yr old sister, Beezus. Technically speaking, Ramona has been on Klickitat St. since the 50’s.when Beverly Cleary first wrote her there, and this littlest Quimby was goofing things up for decades before the wimpy kid would write his diaries, or that British brat with the creepy scar got hauled off to that odd boarding school.
What made her work then and now is that she has no superpowers, great insights, or special secrets or abilities. She was a little girl with a big imagination who was often misunderstood, meant well, and found a great disconnect between her restless energy and what she did with it.
Turns out, giving kids a protagonist with whom they can relate can still be an effective way to sell a picture. Although, having stars helps too. Which may explain why in this cinematic adaptation of Cleary’s cute and clever books, Selena Gomez as Beezus gets to be front and center despite the fact it really is Ramona’s show. No matter, because the charming Gomez has a real rapport and chemistry with newcomer Joey King, who has a mischievous smile and wide eyes and manages to shrug her shoulders in exactly the right way after an improbable accident has taken place.
The script is mostly a series of episodes in which Ramona wrecks things and her harried family attempts to navigate around them, with Beezus flabbergasted by her sister’s capacity for chaos, and the second tier of adults adding some wise and wonderful bits as they muster the energy necessary to deal with their little adolescent tornado.
John Corbett as Ramona’s newly out-of-work dad does a nice job with a role that has nearly become extinct in the Hollywood drama factory; a caring and loving father who is committed to nurturing his children, not pushing them towards inadequacy. Aunt Bea, another character from the books, gets her own subplot involving an old sweetheart and Sandra Oh gives a turn that bolsters the movie as Mrs. Meacham. I remembered some of them from Cleary’s writings, but the way in which the events occur here seem truncated and sometimes awkwardly collaged into the narrative.
This film isn’t just the contents of Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona, but also includes pieces of all the other books, including Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and Ramona the Brave. If there’s a clear fault in the construction of this ‘greatest hits’ approach it is this; the direction is somewhat pedestrian and strains too hard to be wholesome. The result is a movie that’s supremely sweet and likably endearing, but possesses less quirk and daring than the rather old series of books does.
I distinctly recall a segment of Ramona the Brave in which the young girl sets her imagination to the idea that a boneless gorilla is in her closet, puddling up at the bottom of the door, slipping between the cracks and quietly slinking and sliding its way up to the foot of her bed. Ramona and Beezus wants to draw attention to the harrowing nature of Ramona’s imagination but it doesn’t have the time and patience for the boneless gorilla, replacing him instead with more obvious and iconic imaginary interludes. In a children’s movie like this one, obvious and iconic is usually code for clichéd and boring, and I wish more of it were willing to take a few chances.
On the singular level of being a good film, Ramona and Beezus isn’t ambitious enough to succeed. But as an ode to Cleary’s characters and the warm-hearted view of American families they represent, I found it effective and even refreshing. For parents looking for a film to take the little ones to, Ramona may be just the soothing summer balm the doctor ordered.