“It’s good to scare yourself once in a while,” says Ramona Quimby (Joey King). “If you can’t do it at recess, when can you do it?” And so the nine-year-old sets off in search of just such a challenge, rendered in perky animation and ending with Ramona hanging from a tree as her teacher, Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), sighs and heads to the rescue. That is, Ramona lands in a puddle, drenched and vaguely muddy.
The episode, coming at the start of Ramona and Beezus, is at once endearing and too literal. It also lays out what you need to know about Ramona, that she’s precocious and articulate, adventurous and accident-prone. Her mother Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan) sometimes worries that she makes too much trouble and Mrs. Meacham complains that she “lacks focus,” while her father, Robert (John Corbett) tends to encourage her inventive tomboyishness. Ramona has her own ideas about what she’s doing. When her older sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) admires her independence, saying, “You don’t color inside the lines,” Ramona corrects the generalization: “Sometimes I color inside the lines. It depends on the picture.”
Directed by Elizabeth Allen, the movie remixes characters and story bits from several of Beverly Cleary’s beloved Ramona Quimby novel series, especially 1981’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, 1984’s Ramona Forever, and 1977’s Ramona and Her Father, in which he loses his job. It’s this event that sets the movies Ramona into a kind of standard-kids-movie overdrive, as she overhears her parents arguing and determines to help the family keep their house.
That is, she embarks on a number of moneymaking adventures, including that most typical plot device, the cherubic child selling lemonade. In Ramona’s case, this includes using her great-grandmother’s crystal and embarrassing Beezus in front of her gonnabe boyfriend, Henry Huggins (Hugh Dano), “the boy who used to eat dirt in the back yard.” Ramona’s other house-saving scheme has her washing cars, which helps to jumpstart another secondary storyline, in which her Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) reconnects with her utterly lovely high school boyfriend, Hobart (Josh Duhamel), recently returned to town.
The clutter of subplots turns the movie into a series of episodes, wherein Ramona learns life lessons (the cat dies and she and Beezus bury it in a sad scene alone, deciding against bothering their overwrought mom with it) and spends some quality time with her father (during one afternoon when he’s not got a job interview, they draw “the longest picture in the world” on an extra-long scroll of paper). Robert’s situation brings changes to Ramona’s routine (she worries what the kids at school will say about him, and learns that a girl she’s long resented has survived her parents’ divorce).
Ramona’s growing up is, of course, the focus of Ramona and Beezus. She’s a frankly terrific character: in the novels, she’s full of creativity and energy, always finding ways to sort out troubles. The film’s version of her vivid imagination ranges from sweet to clunky, using collagey-style animation to suggest her inner life as well as some plain old kids-in-motion shots (these tend to be most effective, especially when they leave off the too-typical slow motion). Ramona imagines herself floating in outer space; she and her neighbor Howie (Jason Spevak) pretend they’re jumping into the sky as they leap from a kitchen doorway; she’s a TV princess selling peanut butter; and she dreams up gently scary monsters during her first night in her own bedroom.
Each of these moments suggests something of the subjective experience conveyed by the novels (a librarian, Cleary published her first, about Henry Huggins and his wonderful dog Ribsy, in 1950, because she saw a dearth of kids’ books about boys). Ramona’s challenges to herself are mostly age-appropriate (spilling buckets of paint all over Hobart’s car and falling through the ceiling are probably a bit much) and her solutions are usually reasonable.
It’s distracting when the movie resorts to a standard cute-kids-mugging mode. Too many reaction shots—including those of the cat and Ramona’s equally inconsequential baby sister Roberta—mean that complex emotions are turned into jokes. But still, there’s not a single shot of Brendan Fraser in a bra or chihuahua voiced by Salma Hayek. And for that, families can be grateful.