Beverley Cleary is one of those rare authors whose works can transcend generations without seeming dated or archaic. Her books’ messages, be it about the importance of family, individualism or friendship, are universal, which explains why you’ve never met a person who has never read one of her books. Though they’re primarily written for children, many adults still cherish the stories. Because of this, Elizabeth Allen’s Ramona and Beezus had a steep mountain to climb from the film’s inception, and, unfortunately, it’s one that it leaves unconquered.
The film follows Ramona (Joey King), a young girl with an over-active imagination that occasionally gets her into trouble both at home and at school. Her teacher, Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), wants nothing more than for her to stop being a class distraction and as her sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) is growing into maturity, she is looked at as little more than a pest by her sibling. The only person that really seems to understand Ramona is her father (John Corbett), but after he loses his job and the family enters a serious financial situation, everyone’s relationships become strained and Ramona tries to find a way to fix it.
The film’s greatest weakness is its attempt to jam far too many storylines into a 104 minute runtime. The film soon begins to feel episodic instead of like one continuous plot. This would be fine if executed well, but, instead, all of the vignettes seem to follow the same pattern. 1) Ramona is being a rambunctious free spirit, 2) Someone gets upset about Ramona being a rambunctious free spirit 3) Someone has a heart-to-heart with Ramona about growing up, being responsible and learning to mature. The pattern then repeats, as Ramona fails to apply any part of the speech to her life.
To the film’s credit, it actually achieves something that was long thought impossible: making a hyperactive elementary-schooler anything other than exhaustingly annoying. All of the credit for this has to go to King who not only delivers lines in a way that doesn’t make you want to grind your teeth, but simply appears to be in her element and having fun. It would have been easy to pluck any energetic 11-year-old out of a crowd and place her in front of the camera, but the King casting decision was a great one – she truly seems to embody the spirit of Ramona Quimby.
Also deserving praise for a performance is Corbett as Ramona’s father Robert Quimby. Though his character is often the one giving the obscenely sappy heart-to-heart speeches to his daughter (seriously, the music swells and everything), the actor looks to be having fun in the role of the family man. There are many points throughout the film that he is forced to play Bob Saget at the end of an episode of Full House, but, moving past that, he has great chemistry with his on-screen family.
Thanks to the actors, this film isn’t the train wreck that it could have been, but it still doesn’t do Cleary right. Had screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay focused more on the film’s structure and not made it into an after-school special every 15 minutes, they might have been successful, but instead it simply falls flat. Ramona and Beezus won’t tarnish Cleary’s legacy, but it certainly is no alternative to her books.