The inevitable, ominous movie alteration of Beverly Cleary's cherished children's novels, Ramona and Beezus is set on Portland's Klickitat Street and filmed in Vancouver, B.C., but it straight away carries the unmistakable atmosphere of the Disney Channel. Sure, the film has been released under the Fox 2000 brand, but Selena Gomez, who plays older sister Beezus Quimby, is one of those miniature airbrushed divas who trill through the halls of the House of Mouse—her show is called Wizards of Waverly Place, and if you've heard of it, you are probably too young to be reading this publication, and you are probably unfazed by the sight of Beezus wearing lip gloss. Me, I felt the momentary queasiness of seeing a childhood rag doll gussied up in a Bratz outfit.
But I don't put much stock in the notion of Hollywood "ruining" sacred childhood totems—nobody is in fact darting into libraries to smear mascara on your favorite paperbacks—so I settled back to accept the movie on its own terms. And those terms are fine, if not even slightly cinematic. Despite the marketing of Gomez, Beezus is a secondary character here, behind incorrigible Ramona (the very expressive pixie Joey King) and her hiccups of imagination, which are often expressed on the screen through tiny plastic model worlds that the actors wander through. These effects are darling, if a little antiseptic, but director Elizabeth Allen stomps down hard on the comedic punch lines. There are two separate instances of projectile spitting. The antic mayhem of early scenes feels more like Jean Shepherd—lesser Jean Shepherd, like Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss—than Beverly Cleary. Around the movie's midway point, a crusty photographer (identified in the credits as Crusty Photographer, and played by Donnelly Rhodes) is asked, "Don't you ever get tired of 'cheese'?" He responds with perfect weariness: "As a matter of fact, I do." Here I run the risk of sounding like Crusty Reviewer, but I was also getting tired of cheese.
But there are softer, sadder notes humming in the background of Beezus and Ramona, and they eventually rise to the front. Ramona's dad has lost his job, and her beloved Aunt Bea is mulling a move to Alaska with her boyfriend; the movie is a reminder that for children, the family is a tiny model world, and even the slightest tremors in the foundation can feel like catastrophic earthquakes. Mr. Quimby, who leafs through the classifieds in the Portland Tribune (What? You're expecting a joke here? Now, now), is played by John Corbett, and it is reassuring to see that he, unlike the character, keeps finding work; Aunt Bea comes in the person of Ginnifer Goodwin, who always seems very girl-like herself, and is perfect for the role. Many of the familiar and small-scale incidents from the books are here: The Longest Picture in the World, The Running Away From Home Forever, the Death of Picky-Picky. (The demise of the cat may be a spoiler; it certainly spoils things for Picky-Picky.) Ramona and Beezus cry, and they dance, and Henry Huggins gets kissed. It is always a sunny day. No harm is done.
Until my background research this week, I had forgotten that the Cleary books had been adapted to the screen before. In 1988, they were made into a Canadian television series, Ramona, with Sarah Polley in the title role. Polley has since matured to directing movies of her own, when she isn't being sexually menaced by cloned monsters, and few people remember where she got her start. I don't think many people will remember this Ramona and Beezus, either, and that's as it should be. Ramona Quimby belongs to the page, where no one is in a hurry to entertain, where she has room to feel everything for the first time, over and over, always age 8, forever.
is rated G. It opens Friday at Broadway, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, Cornelius, Division, Evergreen, Lloyd Mall, Oak Grove, Sandy, Sherwood, Tigard and Wilsonville.