Generations of children who have never been to Portland, Ore., have a lively idea of the neighborhood of Klickitat Street. They might not recognize it if they actually went there, since what matters about Klickitat Street is that it’s where Henry Huggins delivered newspapers and acquired his bony dog Ribsy — and it’s where the Quimbys live, next door to the Kemps. Ellen Tebbits’ house is a couple of blocks away. A few miles from Klickitat Street, in Grant Park, where Henry once dug for night crawlers, children will find statues of Henry, Ribsy and Ramona, so they’ll know they’re in the right neighborhood.
Ramona and Beezus is in the right neighborhood too, for all that it was filmed in Vancouver. Faithful to the spirit if not the letter of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Ramona and Beezus borrows eclectically from multiple books rather than sticking to one, but gets right what most matters, above all Ramona herself. Fans of Disney princess Selena Gomez may show up to see her as Beezus — and she’s winsome and natural in the role — but the casting of Beezus is less important than that of Ramona. Ramona is probably Cleary’s best character, and it’s vital to get her right.
Newcomer Joey King is the ideal Ramona, with her impish smile, restless energy and genuinely baffled sense that other people don’t see the world the way it obviously is. Consider the unfairness of her teacher, Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), who encourages her pupils to be original, yet inexplicably does not want them using words like “terrifical” or “funner.” “She can’t tell kids not to invent words,” Ramona appeals plaintively to her parents (John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan). “She’s not the president of the world!”
King portrays Ramona at 9, the age she was in Ramona Forever — though fans will recognize story elements from other volumes, including Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona the Brave and especially Ramona and Her Father.
Beverly Cleary fans may or may not necessarily appreciate everything director Elizabeth Allen (Aquamarine) and her screenwriters have done, but at least it’s clear we’re in the hands of fans who understand and love the source material.
Winningly portrayed by Corbett, Mr. Q is an ideal dad: involved, affectionate, funny, talented and self-sacrificing. His arrival home from work is a daily cause of minor celebration at the Quimby home — until the day he comes home with a clouded expression that every adult in the audience will immediately understand, especially in this economy.
The theme of paternal unemployment has gotten a workout in recent years, from Ramona’s cinematic soul sister Kit Kittredge: An American Girl to the wrenching dramas The Pursuit of Happyness and Cinderella Man, among others. At least it’s from the books: Mr. Q loses his job in Ramona and Her Father, leading to anxieties about losing the house and even their domestic happiness.
In the film, likewise, Mr. Q’s joblessness takes a toll on his spirits and even on the Quimbys’ marital harmony, leading to brief, muffled quarrels, while in the next room the girls try not to listen. In one scene, Mr. Q even spends the night on the couch. Ramona, who has heard from a classmate with firsthand experience of money troubles leading to divorce, asks if her parents will get divorced. Mr. Q’s calm reassurances that in the morning he and Mommy will still be happily married (“This is only a time-out.”) reflect his consistent desire to protect his daughters even at his lowest moments. It doesn’t make it all better, but it’s about as positive a spin on a reality of life for many happy but imperfect families as one could hope for.
The filmmakers find some clever ways of weaving together unrelated incidents from the books into a new continuity. Several episodes — including the construction project at the Quimbys’ house, Ramona’s misadventure in cracking hard-boiled eggs on her head, and her fireman-inspired sojourn to school wearing pajamas under her clothes — all acquire added significance in relation to Mr. Quimby’s employment situation. Mr. Q and Ramona’s father-daughter art project, the “longest picture in the world,” pays off in unexpected and satisfying ways. The ultimate resolution to Mr. Q’s employment woes honors the books while offering something tidier and more Hollywood-satisfying.
Other times, the emotional key to an incident seems to have been lost. The movie includes Ramona’s frustration at being unable to explain to her class about the workmen chopping a hole in her house — but not her friend Howie Kemp’s maddeningly calm and literal-minded repudiation of her story, which is the whole point of the episode. (Howie does eventually make the key distinction between “chopping” and “prying,” but he sounds strained and apologetic doing so, which is so not Howie.) A painful incident with a pet in Ramona the Brave hits Beezus harder than Ramona, and Beezus’ pain elicits Ramona’s sympathy and comfort, drawing the sisters closer together. In the movie, it’s Beezus who comforts Ramona.
The movie pumps up romantic elements from the books, notably involving the girls’ Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Howie’s Uncle Hobart (Josh Duhamel), the pair of whom now have a complicated back story I don’t remember from the books. (Fans of the books know how this winds up, though there is one odd moment where it sounds as if Bea may be considering moving away with Hobart with no mention of marriage at that stage.) That Hobart is a keeper is established beyond all conceivable doubt by his ultimate reaction to Ramona’s misadventure in car washing, which also exceeds any mayhem I remember from the books. Meanwhile, Beezus’ and Henry Huggins’ relationship blossoms into puppy love, another liberty that seems plausible enough.
The somewhat diffuse collection of subplots gives the movie a rather lumpy shape, which is not untrue to the books, or to life for that matter. The whole matters less than the parts; what makes it all work is the likability of the Quimbys and the genuineness of the relationships, particularly Ramona’s relationships with her sister and with her Aunt Bea, a welcome avauntular presence. Yes, I know “avauntular” isn’t a word, but there is no good feminine counterpart to “avuncular,” and there should be. Anyway, you can’t tell me not to make up words. You’re not the president of the world.
Content advisory: Some domestic friction; a poignant episode involving a beloved family pet. Fine family viewing.