Ramona and Beezus, director Elizabeth Allen's big-screen mashup of Beverly Cleary's series of books about the most beguiling young pest in Portland, Ore., looks like a detergent commercial. It's all gauzy edges, tidy homes and Norman Rockwell moments. Ramona can walk unattended to elementary school; on the cinematic version of Klickitat Street, the biggest physical threat is that your neighbor might challenge you to a water fight with a garden hose.
But Ramona Quimby herself, one of the sturdiest characters in children's literature, cannot be suppressed. The movie's star, 10-year-old Joey King, is perhaps prettier than Cleary ever imagined her Ramona to be but has the requisite tomboy manner and striking confidence. "Who could ever love a girl named Beezus?" whines her teenage sister Beatrice (sweetly played by Disney star Selena Gomez), lamenting the nickname given to her by Ramona as a toddler. King holds the silence for a beat, then offers a cautious, "Jesus?" Her funny delivery speaks to the essence of Ramona, a child who is guileless and truly well intentioned but can't seem to avoid being aggravating.
Despite the Vaseline-smeared lenses, Ramona and Beezus tackles a very real contemporary issue: unemployment. Mr. Quimby (John Corbett) arrives home with the bad news that he's been downsized from his job at a storage company. Mrs. Quimby (Bridget Moynahan) finds part-time work at a doctor's office, but it's belt-tightening time for the whole family, particularly since they'd just begun construction on an addition to accommodate their third daughter, baby Roberta.
Corbett tries too hard to be cute, while Moynahan mainly gives the impression of blandness. But it's hard not to be touched when Ramona circles classified ads for her demoralized father or when Mr. Quimby speaks, as so many do, of the desire to find a career that allows him to feel as creative as he did in college, before parenthood and its ensuing responsibilities. "If you can find a job that lets you be creative and have fun, give them my resume too," Mrs. Quimby responds dryly, in a rare deviation from perkiness.
Ramona, a girl possessed of particularly acute antennae for household tensions (no surprise, given that she has a habit of inciting them), tries to help raise money with lemonade stands and car washes efforts that typically result in slapstick and disaster. Among those variously affected are her disapproving teacher Mrs. Meachum (a funny Sandra Oh), her beloved Aunt Bea (Big Love's Ginnifer Goodwin, who looks like a big Ramona) and from-out-of-town visitor Hobart (Josh Duhamel), the guy who broke Aunt Bea's heart in high school.
Ramona is such a classic character that it's something of a wonder she hasn't made a previous big-screen appearance. (A 1988 television series featured a very young and toothy Sarah Polley in the role.) Her popularity hardly seems to have abated since the Quimby family vaulted from supporting-characters status in Cleary's Henry Huggins series to center stage in 1955's Beezus and Ramona. It's a rare bookstore that doesn't have at least one of the eight Ramona books on its shelves.
Certainly screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay have the full set. They've thoroughly mined Cleary's canon for material. The title comes from the first book (albeit flipped to reflect Ramona's greater significance), while a family wedding comes from the seventh, as does a surprisingly moving scene involving Picky-Picky, the family cat. But the meat of the story, Mr. Quimby's unemployment, comes from the fourth in the series, Ramona and Her Father, published in 1977, when America's national future was also looking gloomy. It's a smart selection, giving the movie a narrative arc and lending Cleary's family saga, begun in the 1950s and finished in the 1970s, a sense of the contemporary.
But a movie made for kids in 2010 is still resoundingly more cautious than one written for kids in 1977. Consider the passage in Cleary's book in which Picky-Picky interrupts the family dinner with grumpy meows. Mr. Quimby lights up a cigarette and asks what's wrong. Beezus explains the cat's displeasure with the bargain food forced on him by the family's austerity. Mr. Quimby's response? He blows smoke at the ceiling and says, "Too bad about him." The girls shortly thereafter launch an extensive antismoking campaign, and when Ramona catches her father reneging on his promise to quit, they discuss what constitutes a happy family. He argues that they are one. "No family is perfect," he tells her. "Get that idea out of your head." Ramona and Beezus is a gentle, charming movie and really a parent's dream: a kid's movie that doesn't involve action sequences or explosions. Yet you wish the filmmakers had adhered to Mr. Quimby's no-nonsense point of view and found a way to make this family slightly less squeaky-clean.