Based on the children’s novels by Beverley Cleary, Ramona and Beezus features a great deal of Ramona (Joey King) with just a touch of Beezus (Selena Gomez). In fact, given the movie’s exclusive focus on the younger sibling, Ramona’s World might have made a more fitting title or perhaps Ramona and Her Father, Ramona and Aunt Bea, or even Ramona and Everyone Save for Beezus, Who Gets a Handful of Scenes but No Character Arc of Her Own. I can picture poor Beezus sulking behind a great big book on the davenport. “Ramona is such a pest,” she thinks. “Imagine stealing her half of the movie like that!”
As you might have guessed, Beezus and Ramona (notice whose name comes first) is my favourite book in the series and Beezus my favourite character, so I was disappointed by her limited presence. Maybe the filmmakers thought her too old-fashioned now that a ten-year-old taking care of her baby sister is considered abuse by parents who believe discipline and responsibility stifles creativity or whatever. Even with her character now a full-fledged teenager, the sight of Beezus getting her sibling ready for school and helping with dinner feels almost anachronistic. This realisation saddens me to no end, nearly as much as Beezus’ romantic subplot with Henry Huggins, now a bland pretty boy played by Hutch Dano. Blech.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast proves pitch perfect, from Famke Janssen lookalike Bridget Moynahan as the girls’ firm but patient mother, Dorothy, to the always reliable Sandra Oh, who brings a contemporary vibe to the film as Ramona’s observant teacher, Mrs Meacham. I also enjoyed John Corbett’s portrayal of Robert Quimby, the way the actor uses his effortless charm to convey paternal warmth while maintaining a healthy distance, thus avoiding the whole “Daddy Best Friend” schtick of which I’ve grown so tired in Hollywood flicks (and real life).
My favourite performances, though, belong to the two leads. As Beezus, Selena Gomez captures to a T the insecurities of a young woman defined by her sense of duty and belonging. I also appreciate her willingness to share the screen, a rarity in up-and-coming stars her age. This works out well for Joey King, who, in keeping with her character Ramona, dominates every scene with her infectious energy. The ten-year-old is a natural, never playing to the camera or waiting for a reaction, as if she understood kids are cutest when they’re not trying to be.
True to the source material, Ramona and Beezus portrays children not as irresistible bundles of joy but as willful adults in the making. Mind you, the Ramona character remains as adorable as ever. In fact, the movie tones down her mischievous tendencies considerably, focusing on her altruistic nature rather than her temper tantrums. She still ends up making a mess of things, of course, but her charm lies in that she’s genuinely trying to aid her family and make sense of the world.
This, I suppose, leads us to the plot, of which there is none. As anyone familiar with Cleary’s work might expect, we get instead a series of slice-of-life anecdotes, including a sick day, an audition for the title of Royal Peanut Butter Princess, a fugue, and the courtship of Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) by Hobart (Josh Duhamel), of whom Ramona doesn’t approve. Screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay also provide a through line as the Quimbys adjust to Robert losing his job, and the unspoken tension in the household lends just enough weight to a narrative that could otherwise have come off as saccharine.
Every event, after all, is filtered through the mind of a child. Because Ramona is too young to see through her parents’ facade but old enough to feel her sister’s angst, the family woes are mostly communicated through Beezus, owing to Gomez’ ability to convey a truckload of subtext with a hurt look or overanxious nod. However, the film remains driven by Ramona’s joyous flights of fancy, occasionally represented by a creative blend of digital and stop-motion effects. These gorgeous sequences, in which the world becomes a giant toy set and phrases like “take the house” are given literal interpretations, punctuate the drama but never overshadow it.
The use of both old and new animation techniques also contributes to the movie’s timeless feel. Because Cleary set every new entry in the present regardless of the characters’ age, Ramona’s childhood spans nearly fifty years in the book series, a notion director Elizabeth Allen evokes by filling the screen with bits from different eras. The fashion and sets hint at a period piece, as do Ramona’s toys, but then Hobart drives in with his Hummer, and Beezus whips out a wireless phone. These disparate elements mesh surprisingly well and provide a unique atmosphere, one filled with vibrant colours and wholesome charm.
I suspect, a few years from now, people won’t be able to tell when Ramona and Beezus was made. This speaks as much of its distinctive aesthetics as it does of its values. I can’t remember the last time I saw a kids’ movie that didn’t end with the little ones teaching an important lesson to the grown-ups in their lives. Here the parents take care of their children, not the other way around. That strikes me as neither a bygone ideal nor a progressive fantasy. It’s just good parenting.