July 29, 2010

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Ramona & Beezus (G)
The imaginative, trouble-finding Ramona Quimby of Beverly Cleary’s children’s novels gets a big-screen adaptation in Ramona & Beezus, a movie that pulls together storylines from several of the Ramona stories.

Ramona Quimby (Joey King) is a fourth-grader with boundless energy and a skill for getting in trouble. At school, she gets head shakes from her teacher, Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), for making up words and telling stories that seem to stretch the facts about home renovations. At home, she’s regularly at odds with Beezus (Selena Gomez), her teenage sister, who got her nickname because Ramona couldn’t pronounce “Beatrice” as a baby. Ramona is also now an older sister herself since baby Roberta (Aila and Zanti McCubbing) came along. Regularly feeling misunderstood by the world, Ramona has an ally in her Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), herself a younger sister to Ramona’s mom (Bridget Moynahan).

While generally her family smiles and laughs at the antics of Ramona, the Quimby household becomes a little tense when Ramona’s dad (John Corbett) finds himself laid off. Luckily, Ramona can always count on neighbor Howie Kemp (Jason Spevack) to bring the fun, even if she’s not so sure about his Uncle Hobart (Josh Duhamel), former and maybe future sweetheart of Aunt Bea.

My reading of Ramona spanned, I think, her kindergarten years through fourth grade. This movie pulls plotlines from a variety of books including earlier stories that focused on Beezus and a friend Henry (who here becomes the oldest Quimby girl’s potential first boyfriend). I liked remembering those stories though I think the compilation loses some of the sparkle of the stories as they unfolded in the books. The characters feel flatter here — we’re getting Ramona’s antics but not her kid-thought process. The movie does a good job at attempting to pull us into Ramona’s head by showing us the space journey or the parachuting adventure that she imagines when she bounces on her bed or jumps through a hole in the wall where the Quimbys are adding a room to the house.

There’s a lot about Ramona’s world, adventure and hardship, that may be familiar to kids in our world: the stress unemployment puts on a family, the constant awareness of the family budget. I read the Ramona stories as a kid and those themes of frugality seemed meaningful then as well. This is part of the success of the stories, that they focus on things that never change, like sibling dynamics and family concerns. If your copies of the Ramona books are too worn to have interested your kids before this, this movie might make those stories new again, with a genuine sweetness and a universal kid viewpoint. A kid who gets hooked on the characters through this movie will find in the books stories that can survive the transition to a world of Internet and video games. B-

Rated G. Directed by Elizabeth Allen and written by Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay (from the novels of Beverly Cleary), Ramona & Beezus is an hour and 44 minutes long and distributed in wide release by 20th Century Fox.