Friday Family Movie Night: Ramona and Beezus
When Portland learned that Ramona Quimby would be modernized and done up all High School Musical-style (with a Beezus, Selena Gomez, straight from a starring role on the Disney Channel), there was excitement at first -- Klickitat Street, on the big screen! -- and then disappointment. Other than a few establishing shots, the movie was filmed entirely in Vancouver, B.C., where they have all the movie fun. (But at least we get to be Boston in Leverage, so there.) And there was the usual concern about reflecting the book. Would it be faithful? Would it be good?
Well, it definitely wasn't faithful to the book series, at least not in a way that any Ramona fan would deem acceptable. Charming and fun and faithful to the mood and episodic style of the books, though, sure. Though the movie is titled "Ramona and Beezus," it's nothing like the first book of the Ramona series which shares its title. Instead, the book is set roughly in the time of both Ramona and Her Father and Ramona Forever, mashed up, with a Beezus from Ramona's World (15 and spouting French to annoy her sister) and the family makeup from Ramona and Her Mother.
It's this mashup that gives the movie its inner life, and also its contradictions. Ramona is, as in the book series, always screwing up situations because of her active imagination, impatience, and earnest belief in the magnitude of her own actions. She gets angry at her family and squirts an entire toothpaste tube into the sink. She is made fun of at school and exacerbates the problem by trying to crack a boiled egg on her head -- and having it turn out to have been raw. (Oops. And it's picture day.) She hears that the situation with the family's home is precarious, so she starts a lemonade stand to earn money to "save" it.
The central story line from Ramona and Her Father -- that her father has lost his job and is trying without much luck to find a new one -- is here, and is so modern it might as well have been written, well, today. This week even. The romance between Aunt Bea and Ramona's friend Howie's uncle Hobart is darling, if a little obvious (in both versions), but the real sweetness is between Aunt Bea and Ramona; a sweetness the viewer is meant to believe, Ramona needs desperately. Can she afford to live without it? She's odd girl out in her house. Beezus is the responsible older sister -- who, as in the first book in the series, has no patience for Ramona's pestiness, and tortures her. Baby sister Willa Jean is just adorable, even when she's putting applesauce on her head. Dad is achey-breaky-unemployed and mom is working overtime. How's she going to survive without Aunt Bea?
Nagging questions aside, there is lots to love in this movie. It's sweet and funny and it's lovely to watch a movie set, supposedly, in your own town (and rated "G" to boot). The relationships between the family members ring true, even through the awkwardness of turning the 1950s or 1960s into the late Aughts. The false notes come through thanks to picking and choosing episodes from all the books and setting them into a modern nine-year-old's body. As Everett said, incredulously, "the worst word she knows is 'guts'?" Even in 1955, the year the first book was written, a nine-year-old would probably know a worse word than "guts." (Ramona wasn't even in kindergarten when that episode occurs in the books.) Her fears and accidents are often those that would be suffered by a much younger girl -- probably because most of them were written for a much younger girl. (Joey King, the actress, looks younger than nine too, though she was about 10 when the movie was filmed.)
It's an enjoyable romp, and though I wouldn't recommend a serious reading of the books right before you watch the movie -- it will be too frustrating -- it would be a good adventure for a family who hasn't yet been introduced to the books or, like me, read them as a child and probably won't read them to her kids for a while yet (we're deep in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets right now). By the time we do, the movie will be a dim memory, and we can explore them for their own delights. Don't expect deep, important themes; do expect fun and recognizability. Ramona, though confusingly characterized, is still adorable.