Ramona and Beezus
Directed by Elizabeth Allen
Beverly Cleary's Ramona books, following the everyday adventures of a rambunctious, sometimes moody little girl from ages four to ten, seem to exist out of time; they were written over a forty-year period, yet feel of a piece, and potentially tricky to translate from the their interior, episodic pages. First filmed in the 80s as a TV production with a young Sarah Polley(!) as Ramona, the property has been claimed by Walden Media, the vaguely menacing family-friendly company behind those Narnia movies. Rather than the A-list filmmakers who might be hired to work on, say, a Roald Dahl adaptation, the core creative crew for the new Ramona and Beezus comes from all-ages also-rans like Paulie, Ella Enchanted, and Aquamarine.
Director Elizabeth Allen and the Walden team sand off a few edges: Ramona is now a cheery emblem of individuality, and this lends some of her greatest-hits mischief, culled from the whole Ramona series, less psychological build-up. Cleary's writing masterfully recreates the serious internal logic that might lead to a child, say, wearing pajamas under her school clothes, or squeezing out an entire tube of toothpaste. Screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay keep many of the incidents but focus more on positive, kid-flattering qualities like Ramona's imagination and energy, with brief fantasy interludes bleeding into the action.
But they do keep bringing the movie back to reality: the Quimby family still has financial problems, with Ramona's father (John Corbett) out of work and in danger of defaulting on the loan granted for the expansion of their modest, nicely messy little house. Strung together, Ramona's stories, tied together a little more for the film, form an anthology of childhood confusion and disappointment, played with natural charm by newcomer Joey King—even when the script inserts awkward, misplaced adult-speak into her lines ("what's that about?" she says at one point, echoing my reaction to nine-year-olds talking like teenagers).
Regarding Beezus, though, the movie can't resist some more questionable revisions: as played by tween semi-star Selena Gomez, Beezus shifts from "sensible" bearer of burdens to a pretty go-getter and sibling-taunter. This is believable enough for her high-school age, but the screenplay also insists on placing her in a stereotypically girly context, having her bumble through encounters with a designated love interest—Henry Huggins! In Cleary's books, Huggins himself was the earnest bumbler; here, recast as a bland cutie and played by Disney alum Hutch Dano, he stands back as Beezus enacts Seventeen-lite embarrassments.
Even with a slightly glammed-up Beezus and a distractingly put-together Huggins, Ramona and Beezus stays true to the spirit of Cleary's material. If it lacks quite the same level of insight and close characterization as its source, or any sense of personal interpretation a la Where the Wild Things Are, it also hops over any number of live-action family-film tripwires: strained farce, aspirational pandering, down-with-adults marketing, or, most chillingly, talking animals (in fact, the Quimby family pet is not only silent, but mortal). The characters remain comfortingly era-resistant.
Opens July 16