Friday, July 23, 2010

Ramona and Beezus: Clearly Cleary

Ramona and Beezus (2010) • View trailer for Ramona and Beezus
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.23.10
Buy DVD: Ramona and Beezus • Buy Blu-Ray: Ramona & Beezus [Blu-ray]

Beverly Cleary, still with us at a spry 94 years old, must be quite pleased by Ramona and Beezus.

I was optimistic going in, because Walden Media has a solid reputation when it comes to respectful adaptations of beloved children's books; consider the track record that includes Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie, Hoot, Charlotte's Web and Bridge to Terabithia.
Ramona (Joey King, foreground) leads the charge when a backyard water fight
grows to include the folks next door, much to the delight of, from left, her
Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), older sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) and mother
(Bridget Moynahan). And if neighborhood relations aren't this much fun in
real life, they should be!

And yes, director Elizabeth Allen and scripters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay have done a marvelous job with Ramona and Beezus, lifting various incidents from books going all the way back to 1952's Henry and Beezus. (Consider Cleary's impressive literary longevity; Ramona's World was released in 1999 ... nearly half a century later!)

But the faithfulness of this adaptation goes beyond characters and incidents; Allen has captured the very tone and atmosphere of these cherished books. It's almost as if Louis Darling's original illustrations have come to life; indeed, young star Joey King looks very much like Darling's drawings of Ramona "the pest"  the sobriquet frequently included as part of the little girl's name  down to her favorite red rubber boots.

In many ways, this charming film will feel like the equivalent of time travel, particularly for older readers who grew up as Cleary was writing her books.

Which begs the key question, of course: Can a movie this sweet and wholesome survive amid the noisy flash of today's so-called "family films," which rely too frequently on slapstick humor and fart jokes?

Boy, I'd sure like to think so, because we need more movies like this one.

The setting is good ol' Klickitat Street in Cleary's cherished Portland, Ore., where so many of her books take place. The time is unspecified, although this feels like a retro glimpse of the late 1950s or early '60s; Allen avoided technology, cars, fashion or hairstyles that would echo the 21st century.

Computers and cell phones aren't in evidence, so viewers can imagine the Ramona of their own childhoods; as Allen perceptively comments, in her press notes, "Every generation seems to think the Ramona books were written for them."

Ramona and older sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) share their suburban home with loving parents  John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan, as Robert and Dorothy Quimby  a baby sister and a fat orange cat with an usual name (Picky Picky) that Dad deliberately gets hilariously wrong. This is a well-established family tradition, much the way Ramona mashes her nose against the front window when her father gets home from work each afternoon, and he taps the glass before entering the house and letting his middle daughter jump onto his back for a ride into the kitchen.

Ramona is regarded as something of a trial to her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), who disapproves of the little girl's tendency to fabricate new words. Indeed, Ramona's imagination frequently runs away with her  crossing a set of playground parallel rings, for example, becomes a dangerous overhand journey across a bottomless chasm  and these flights of fancy are depicted in a stylized manner that echoes young Ralphie's similar reveries in A Christmas Story.

Ramona's relationship with her older sister is mostly loving but occasionally brittle; Beezus, although impressively patient, sometimes gets just as exasperated as poor Mrs. Meacham. Besides, Beezus has her own issues; she's noticing that her longtime relationship with Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano) is morphing from 'best friend' into something a little harder to explain.

Fortunately, even when Ramona drives everybody else in her family crazy, she can count on the loving tolerance of her Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), who as an adult "younger sister" knows all about the trials and tribulations of a hand-me-down existence. But Bea is being similarly distracted, much to Ramona's scowling annoyance; a long-unseen high school beau, Hobart (Josh Duhamel), has returned to the neighborhood and seems bent on 'reeling Bea back in' like a sea bass.

On top of which, a construction crew has torn a hole in the side of the Quimby house, during a remodel that will add a new bedroom. Does that mean, Ramona hopes against hope, that she'll no longer need to share a room with Beezus?

Such kid-size calamities and desires suddenly fade, however, when Ramona is confronted by her first adult-style crisis: Her father loses his job. With images of their home being "taken away" by the bank, Ramona tackles the problem with the resourcefulness of a 9-year-old, hoping that lemonade stands and car washes can raise enough money to save her family.

Life, alas, doesn't work quite that way.

Getting emotionally wrapped up in such family issues is a function of identifying with the characters involved, and Allen coaxes fine work from her cast. Corbett is the pluperfect devoted father: warm and caring, with just enough mischief to suggest that the apple named Ramona didn't fall too far from his tree. But Corbett also adds just the right amount of unease; when Beezus worriedly tells Ramona that "Dad is trying to act like everything's OK, but I can tell he's worried," we know she speaks the truth.

Moynahan has a slightly tougher role, since Dorothy feels the need to be the stable, hard-nosed member of her tribe; her husband is prone to flashes of wistful, artistic idealism that don't necessarily gel with the practical demands of providing for a family. (Here, too, Robert shares his middle daughter's creativity.) Moynahan's best scene comes when Mom deftly handles Ramona's decision to run away.

Goodwin and Duhamel establish a cute, slightly snarky dynamic as Bea and Hobart, and Oh craftily surprises us with Mrs. Meacham's unexpected depths.

The only actor who doesn't quite fit my preconceived notions of these characters is Dano, who remains a bit too bland as Henry. In fairness, this has more to do with Henry not being given much to do; Dano could be playing any awkward, tongue-tied teenage boy from any other universe. He doesn't inhabit this depiction of Cleary's world quite as much as the other actors.

Gomez and King, though, are simply perfect.

King is the obvious standout and unabashed scene-stealer: no surprise, since this is mostly Ramona's story. King's little face scrunches up into wonderfully varied expressions, petulance or frustration melting into surprise or radiant joy at the blink of an eye. Indeed, King is particularly adept at that brand of all-stops-out exhilaration that characterizes imaginative children, who bounce like rubber balls from one terrifical experience to the next.

Gomez has the quieter role, but her natural warmth is just as crucial to Beezus' nature, as King's unbridled energy is to Ramona's. Eyebrows are likely to lift, however, when Beezus wonders aloud what boy ever would pay attention to her, if Henry weren't around. Gomez's Beezus is far prettier  OK, let's face it; she's drop-dead gorgeous  than her illustrated self in Cleary's books, where the teenager is depicted as being a bit plainer.

Allen wisely avoids the pitfall of too much gratuitous destruction, so frequent in today's lesser kid-universe comedies; Ramona's a pest, not a pint-sized wrecking machine. And that's appropriate; 'Ramona and Beezus' isn't a comedy, although it certainly has funny moments. Allen has delivered a film that's every bit as poignant, aw-shucks engaging and whimsical as Cleary's books.

The characters in Jasper Fforde's imaginative "Thursday Next" series get to step into the pages of books, and actually share the lives of the characters within. For the two hours I remained entranced by Ramona and Beezus, I knew how that felt.

No comments:

Post a Comment