Beverly Cleary’s award-winning series of children’s books about precocious tyke Ramona Quimby, her parents Robert and Dorothy and her big sister Beezus (for Elizabeth) are the basis for this amiable but innocuous family movie, which would be more at home on a cable channel than theatre screens but should nevertheless amuse young girls and their mothers, though their brothers will probably yearn to scurry into a different auditorium in the megaplex.
Though the first of the books appeared as long ago as 1955, the script moves the action to the present, and has a contemporary spin in the fact that a major plot thread involves Robert losing his job and Dorothy having to go back to work part-time to support the family while her husband searches for another. But one shouldn’t read overmuch into this; it’s basically a device to get the narrative moving rather than a commentary on the present-day recession. “Ramona and Beezus” is really just an episodic tale of perky Ramona’s shenanigans as her indulgent dad looks on and her older sister is exasperated by her antics (lovingly, of course). The family member largely shunted to the side in all this is mom Dorothy, though she does get a chance to shine in the section dealing with Ramona’s decision to run away from home late in the game.
There are a couple of secondary story threads to break up the string of Ramona’s drive to become a star in a “princess” commercial or the mess she makes when trying to help out by making dinner. One involves Beezus’ recognition that her old childhood pal Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano)—the hero of another Cleary series—has more than merely friendly interest in her. The other involves the renewal of a romance between Ramona’s aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Hobart (Josh Duhamel), the handsome guy with a wandering spirit who comes back to town and catches her eye again. But Ramona looks with disfavor on their getting together, because Bea’s her chum and she doesn’t want her to run off with her old beau.
Rest assured that all of Ramona’s troubles are taken care of by the time the movie rolls to an end. She and Beezus overcome their differences, bonding over the death of a beloved pet. Robert’s job problem is resolved via one of those unlikely interventions that smacks of the sentimental close of a sitcom. And the romantic subplots both turn out nicely, too.
There’s a comic-strip familiarity to the movie that’s partially overcome by the ingratiating nature of the cast. Young Joey King anchors things as Ramona, moving easily from perky to emotional, and though Disney Channel staple Selena Gomez seems awfully Hollywood for the Oregon girl Beezus, her winning personality comes through. John Corbett uses his laid-back persona to good effect as Robert, and Bridget Moynahan comes into her own as the long-suffering mom in that running-away sequence toward the close. Meanwhile Duhamel and Goodwin seem to be having great fun as the sometimes childish adult pair. And Sandra Oh uses her deadpan manner to amusing effect as Ramona’s put-upon but sympathetic teacher.
“Ramona and Beezus” is directed with sitcom energy by Elizabeth Allen, who on the basis of this picture and “Aquamarine,” clearly has a feel for material that will appeal to young girls. Visually the production is bright and cheery-looking, befitting the feel-good character of the stories. May I suggest, though, that it’s time that music supervisors retired “Walking on Sunshine” as a background tune for upbeat moments? It’s a pretty good tune, but it’s been overused to death in the movies.
This isn’t an unpleasant picture—indeed, for those who have enjoyed the Ramona books over the decades its nostalgic glow will be a treat, and their daughters and granddaughters should enjoy it as well. But it will find a happier home after it leaves big theatre auditoriums and makes it to the video shelf and family cable outlets.