A Sweet Adaptation of a Childhood Classic
By Roxana Hadadi
Casting an unknown actor in the lead role of a movie can mean disaster. This summer’s “The Last Airbender” certainly didn’t benefit from new face Noah Ringer in the lead role, and neither did any of the “Star Wars” movies with Hayden Christensen or “Superman Returns” with Brandon Routh. One wrong actor is a decision a director can’t really take back.
But most of the charm of “Ramona and Beezus,” adapted from a series of children’s books by Beverly Cleary – who also wrote the legendary “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” – comes from 10-year-old actress Joey King. Chosen for the role of Ramona after a nationwide casting call, she can frown, furrow her brow and innocently grin with the best of them, helping bring the character to life onscreen. And though she doesn’t have the same kind of name recognition as Disney’s Selena Gomez, who plays older sister Beezus, King’s fresh-faced appeal helps give the film its light feel.
Cleary’s books, which began with “Beezus and Ramona” in 1955 and continued until “Ramona’s World” in 1999, traced the Quimby sisters from childhood to high school, ending with Ramona entering fourth grade and Beezus, nicknamed for Beatrice, beginning freshman year. Sure, it took 44 years for Cleary to progress her characters a few years, but in the film nearly everything is packed into 103 minutes, giving the movie a speedy consistency but one that still sticks to the novel formula. Each segment seems picked up from a book – and they usually are – but as each dilemma comes up, it weaves successfully into the film’s overarching narrative.
Things begin with Ramona, age 9 years, 3 months, who adamantly insists that she is “not a pest” and lets her overactive imagination run wild – much to the chagrin of her straight-laced teacher, Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), and her classmates, who mock her tendency to get carried away during recess or class presentations. It doesn’t help that she then goes home to her sister, Beezus (Gomez), who gets straight As, has a large vocabulary and is beginning to develop an interest in boys, namely childhood friend Henry (Hutch Dano); one change from the books is that she is already in high school. And though Ramona’s parents Bob (John Corbett) and Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan) obviously care for her, she feels a special connection to her Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), who as Dorothy’s little sister understands what Ramona is going through.
But most of those academic issues, such as how Ramona’s teacher reports she has “very little respect for … rules in general,” fall by the wayside when her father loses his job (a plot development that Cleary wrote during the 1970s and obviously still works now). Thanks to company downsizing, Robert is now the one home with Beezus, Ramona and baby sister Roberta (Aila McCubbing), while Dorothy goes back to work part time in a doctor’s office. Horrified that the family, who had just started an addition to their house, may end up poor, Ramona takes it upon herself to find a way to save them – and of course, whether she’s selling lemonade in front of her house or trying out for a commercial as a peanut butter princess, she finds some way to funnily screw it up.
At her core, Ramona is a misunderstood-but-well-intentioned character, and the film does a solid job of conveying her adventure-seeking spirit and appreciation for her family. While she and Beezus spar over typical sisterly things, like who will end up getting their own room when the home’s addition is complete and why Beezus needs her privacy while talking to Henry on the phone, King and Gomez share an easy chemistry that makes their relationship believable. And the rest of the casting is effective, too: Corbett is always perfect for roles where he’s lovable, caring and creatively inclined; Moynahan excels at tough motherly love tactics; Goodwin rolls her eyes with perfect comic timing; and Josh Duhamel, who plays the Quimbys’ neighbor and Aunt Bea’s high school sweetheart Hobart, is as effortlessly charming as always.
The only complaint that could be made about the film, really, is that it’s too cute. Every family dilemma ends with a hug and a kiss, and you almost expect everyone to share a bowl of cookies and some mugs of milk during their happy reunions. But only the most bitter and jaded of viewers could dislike the lively, colorful scenes where Ramona’s imagination runs wild – such as when she daydreams about jumping out of planes or crossing treacherous cliffs – and the bits where Aunt Bea and Hobart rekindle their relationship in his Jeep. And that’s not a sexual innuendo; the film only shares a few kisses between the two. Other questionable elements for younger viewers include some fights between Dorothy and Robert, talk of the effects of divorce and poverty, a tragedy involving a family pet and the use of the word “guts” as a curse.
And while the film sometimes feels like it’s just jumping from plot point to plot point in order to get as many elements from the books in as possible, it overall creates a solid storyline that successfully introduces the Quimbys to a new audience. Just expect to feel very cheery and happily ever after when it’s all said and done – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Roxana Hadadi last reviewed “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Also in theaters this week is “Despicable Me.”