I don't know if there is a character in children's literature whom I love more than Ramona Geraldine Quimby. So despite my reservations brought on by the trailer, I went to see Ramona and Beezus last night.
Let's get this out of the way first: this is not an adaptation of Beezus and Ramona. If you go expecting to see Ramona surrounded by apples with one bite taken out of them, or shoving Bendix into a birthday cake or riding around yelling "par-tee!", you will be sorely disappointed. It's unfortunate, then, that they chose to title the film in Ramona and Beezus, as hardcore fans, expecting a book adaptation, will be disappointed, and new fans of the series, picking up Beezus and Ramona for the first time, will be more than a bit confused.
The plot of the film is actually taken mainly from major events in several books, most notably Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona and Her Father, and Ramona Forever. There are acknowledgments to other titles in the series (the construction company working on the home is called "Bendix Bros. construction," Susan and her boingy curls, Willa Jean being annoying, as usual) which is fun for hardcore fans, but not necessarily fun enough to get us to overlook the fact that condensing all of Ramona's adventures into an hour and forty-four minutes leaves one feeling overwhelmed and a bit disoriented. The gentle pacing of Cleary's books is lost here: Ramona, played by the adorable Joey King, who looks and acts a bit like an elementary school version of Rory Gilmore, spends much of the film in a panic, due to the fact that there are perhaps a few too many adventures taking place at the same time (it could also be argued that Ramona is perhaps dealing with ADHD).
Traumatic events in Ramona's life, such as cracking an egg on her head, throwing up in front of her classmates, dealing with her father's job loss, dealing with her aunt moving away, dealing with the death of her beloved cat, Picky-Picky, etc: all of these things, wisely spread out in Cleary's books, are shoved together and interspersed with elaborate imagination shots of Ramona skydiving or floating in space that are meant to show the viewer how Ramona sees things in her own mind, but end up feeling intrusive and as if they were meant for someone else's film.
At times it feels that there are too simply too many things happening at once, and in the midst of dealing with all of these fairly scary things, Ramona is constantly being laughed at, mocked, and misunderstood at home and at school, and rarely gets the chance to explain or redeem herself. Some of the side plots, including a very sweet romance between Ginnifer Goodwin's Aunt Bea and Josh Duhamel, provide a bit of relief (and perhaps some entertainment for older members of the audience), while others, like the budding romance between Selena Gomez's Beezus and Henry Huggins, feel a bit forced, if only because neither character is ever really given a chance to be as complex and interesting as they are in Cleary's books.
There's so much going on that Ramona herself often gets lost in the shuffle, and her wackiness seems to be the only thing that springs her back into the spotlight, a shame in that the quieter moments of the film, like when Ramona and Beezus hear their parents fighting, or when Ramona tries to hide her nausea so that her father can make his interview on time, are the most honest depictions of the stresses of girlhood and trying to navigate difficult feelings—both emotional and physical—while weighing the costs they might have on the people around you. These quiet moments are wonderfully portrayed by Gomez and King, and I wish there were a few more of them, especially for Gomez, whose Beezus takes a back seat to the various other plots swirling around her.
It's the loss of the Beezus of the books that is most painful: in presenting the high school Beezus, whom Ramona declares at one point to be "the most prettiest, perfect girl in high school, and everybody loves you," we lose the Beezus who struggled with her looks, her desire to be grown-up, her relationship with her sister and feelings of anger and resentment ("Sometimes I don't love Ramona!") and her own struggle to find her place in the world through her imagination. There are few moments when Beezus shows cracks in her shell, but she never gets the chance to become a complete character, which is especially frustrating, in that if they'd chosen to keep Beezus an awkward, angsty junior high student (at Rosemont, thanksverymuch) and not a popular, beautiful high schooler, they might have presented a perspective that is continually overlooked on film. Henry Huggins comes across as fairly bland as well, and putting both of them together for the sake of providing a tween romance angle seems a bit silly and out of place in a G-rated movie, though I suppose it's meant to draw in Gomez's primary tween fanbase. It's a shame, though: both characters deserve better, and have so much more to offer. There are plenty of beautiful, bland high schoolers having innocent flirtations in kids' entertainment today: where are all the 11-13 year olds? The ones who aren't gorgeous and polished and aren't living glamorous lives? The ones who are going through that strange period between being a kid and being a young adult? If anyone needs to be represented in a more honest and forgiving and insightful way, it's them.
The beauty of the Ramona Quimby books—and arguably all of Cleary's titles—is that there's a strong emphasis on turning the ordinary into the extraordinary simply by using one's imagination, and while that theme is played with here, it often feels like Ramona is being punished or made fun of (especially by Beezus, who shows a bit of a cruel streak at times) for attempting to do just that. As the film ends, she's finally praised for being herself, but that redemption rings a bit hollow when we've spent 80% of the film watching her being mocked, reprimanded, and told to control herself and grow up a bit. I felt sorry for her many times, and wished that she'd get a chance to assert herself, but it seemed as if she was constantly being embarrassed or punished for her—to borrow a phrase from another of Cleary's titles—runaway imagination.
Ramona is a beloved character because she sees the magic in normal things, and because Cleary can take something as simple as the feel of new eraser, or the taste of a hamburger during a trip to the Whopper Burger, and turn it into a marvelous experience. These particular moments aren't in the film, and others—like Ramona making herself a crown of burrs to mimic a girl she's seen on a commercial—become blown up for show, with Ramona actually auditioning for said commercial, and falling into a giant peanut butter sandwich. As I said earlier, the shots of Ramona jumping into space or sailing through the air are meant to replicate the magic in small moments, and they're fun, but it's the often adventures she has without special effects that are the most exciting.
In the end, however, it should be said that the film certainly has its charm, and its moments where the spirit of Ramona Quimby comes shining through. In the commercial scene, for example, which calls for a peanut butter princess, Ramona appears wearing a skirt, a t-shirt that reads "Be a Nut." on the back, a homemade necklace, her raincoat, and her burr crown, which she's made in the parking lot after she sees a sea of interchangeable pageant girls in princess gowns and tiaras waiting to audition. She doesn't fit in, but rather stands out in a sea of identical princesses, and that's what makes her special, and someone to root for. Even better: she doesn't get the job, or the Disney recording contract, or what have you, to suddenly make her famous and rich, solving all of her problems. Instead, she ends up having the burrs cut out of her hair (as she does in Ramona and Her Father) and we're reminded that she's just a kid; a wacky one, yes, and perhaps not exactly the one we loved in the books, but still a Ramona Quimby that little girls can go see on the screen and cheer for. King is a great Ramona; a different Ramona, in that she has to experience the adventures of several books—and several ages—all at once, but a great Ramona just the same.
Whenever a beloved character is moved from the page to the screen, something is lost, if only because we all build little worlds in our own minds and create an image of who we believe these characters are, and how they should behave. Sometimes a movie can come close in replicating those images, but the visions in our minds are always closer to our hearts, and it's hard to view someone else's idea of that fictional place as anything but second-best. If you're a fan of the Ramona books, the film might bother you a bit if you were expecting to see things unfold exactly as they did in the books (and perhaps as they did in your memories), but in stepping back and viewing it not as a super-faithful adaptation, but as entertainment aimed primarily at young girls, there is certainly something to be celebrated here: it provides a protagonist who really doesn't want to be anything but herself, and that is the true spirit of Ramona Quimby, and the message that one leaves with in the end, that being yourself and using your imagination is really what makes life special. The little girls who sat in the theater with me seemed to really enjoy the film, as did the adults accompanying them, and it was exciting to see them connect to an iconic character, even if her story on screen was slightly different than her stories in print. For many young viewers, this will be their first time meeting Ramona Geraldine Quimby, and one hopes that they'll fall in love with her spirit just as we did as kids, and seek out her adventures on the page. In that way, everyone wins. Except for Yard Ape, who sadly didn't make an appearance in the film. Old Yard Ape! Serves him right for stealing that eraser.