“Ramona and Beezus” isn’t a very apt title for this picture, but I suppose it handles better than “Ramona and Every Damn Person She Knows.” A bulky screen adaption of author Beverly Cleary’s most enduring character, the picture simply doesn’t know when to quit, hitting a few bright spots of charm and harmless tomfoolery before its gets lost, turning a cute family film diversion into a modest endurance test.
Trying to tackle life as a kid, Ramona Quimby (Joey King) embraces her wild side, often losing herself inside her vast imagination. Enjoying a comfortably itchy relationship with sister Beezus (Selena Gomez), Ramona attempts to make herself useful to her father, Bob (John Corbett), and mother, Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan), while navigating the trials of elementary school, taking advice from her beloved Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin).
With financial troubles bearing down on the Quimby household, Ramona starts to panic, hoping to help out with various jobs around the neighborhood, while trusting that the family will unite and prevent the lost of their treasured home. Offering support is neighbor Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano) and nomadic hunk Hobart (Josh Duhamel), who’s returned to town to win Bea’s hesitant heart.
I’ll give the film this much: it sure is timely. Taking a surprisingly modern approach to the material, screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay rework Cleary’s characterizations to fit a brave new world of foreclosure and unemployment, hoping to strike a more realistic tone to help younger audience members relate to the drama. The upgrade is generous, despite most of the dialogue rooted in gee-willikers banter to preserve the source material, but the picture carries a fresh air of engagement, utilized well by director Elizabeth Allen (“Aquamarine”) as she arranges a series of adventures for our teeny hero.
The amount of adventures for Team Quimby is where the script falls into overkill. Pulling from a loaded shelf of Ramona stories, the screenplay elects an episodic interpretation, winding the little girl through a routine of troublemaking and lesson learning. The basic elements are well cared for with gentle comedy and endearing school time humiliations, but the load is too much for Allen, who spends much of the film zipping around from subplot to subplot, attempting to lace together a coherent feature film.
“Ramona and Beezus” becomes easily distracted while shaping a community of characters, confronting Ramona’s insecurity, Beezus’s teen love life, Bob’s artistic aspirations, Bea’s high school relationship scars, and Hobart’s renewed interest in his former flame. There’s also a moneymaking scheme with Ramona auditioning for a peanut butter commercial, and some unsavory business with a dead family pet.
Allen’s work here resembles a restaurant server balancing a jittery stack of dinner plates on a tray: at first secure and bold, but she eventually loses her concentration and allows the picture to crash noisily through unwanted melodrama mixed with cutesy G-rated hijinks.
Holding up the picture is King, who’s exceptional as the precocious youngster; a titan of a tyke who prefers to use “Guts!” as a swear and enjoys turning daily activites into an imagination wonderland, sold well through resourceful special effects. King is a highly trained young actress, and her comfort in front of the camera is a little disconcerting, but she’s excellent at capturing the essence of the frizzy, cheeky character, while playing comfortably with Gomez, who makes for a believably beleaguered older sister.
“Ramona and Beezus” is certainly well intentioned and respectful of Cleary’s wonderfully written world, but it’s a labored picture, eschewing the breeze of simplicity to cram all available chapters into a picture that eventually slows to a maddening crawl. To that, I fling a mighty “Guts!” to the filmmakers.