Many, many people grew up reading Beverly Cleary's kid-lit books about Henry Huggins, Ramona Quimby and their adventures on Klickitat Street. It should be no surprise that a film adaptation has been created; the only surprise is that it didn't happen earlier. Fans will note there was a Canadian TV show based on the characters in the 1980's, but until now Ramona and her pals have stayed off the big screen.

So it's a bit of a shame that Ramona and Beezus is so limp. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit that I somehow managed to never read any of the Huggins/Quimby oeuvre, but I've been assured by those who did that all of the essential plot points are solidly drawn from the source material. And the young actress cast as Ramona, Joey King, is smart and expressive and delightful, and likely to become the next go-to kid in Hollywood. While it's a tad strange to see Bridget Moynihan cast as the mother is a film like this (and with John Corbett as the dad!) but that has little to do with the tone of the film. No, it's just that Ramona and Beezus feels a little ... off.

The main problem with the film is that the entire thing plays like a family-friendly TV movie rather than a feature film, with sitcom-level comedy set-ups, crayon bright colors, and a story that swings between aw-shucks heartstring pulling and maudlin sentimentality. The groundwork is laid for subplots (Ramona competes against a snotty classmate for a role in a peanut-butter commercial) with no real pay-off later (Ramona gets trapped inside a giant sandwich, then the commercial's never mentioned again.) A rekindled romance between Ramona's beloved Aunt Beatrice (Ginnifer Goodwin) and her ex-boyfriend (Josh Duhamel) is important to the plot because of what it might mean for Ramona, yet the movie's point-of-view keeps switching to those two characters, as if the story was as much about them as it is about the kids. It's less sloppy than it is careless, a big soft pillow of a movie that comfortably squishes around the viewer without form or intent.

The film is ostensibly about Ramona, who finds herself in mild trouble here and there because of her spunky nature, but almost equal time has been given to her older sister, Beezus, played by Selena Gomez of the Disney' Channel's "Wizards of Waverly Place." I've heard rumors for a few years now that the Disney conglomerate owns a super-secret farm where they create genetically engineered children for their TV and film projects. Not content to merely find and cast the most photogenic kids available, Disney now grows them to their own specifications so that they'll not only look good now, but will mature into equally good-looking teenagers. This is how they can avoid what's referred to as "the Miley problem."

Gomez is a likely product of Disney Labriculture, Incorporated. And I don't say this -- okay, I don't just say this -- because I was convinced throughout the entire movie that I was watching Demi Lovato, star of Camp Rock. These mistakes are understandable when you're an adult, and you don't follow the arrivals and departures of the various Hudgenses, Jonases and Biebers.

No, Gomez is likely a lab-grown superchild because of her sheer perfection. Her eyes twinkle with exquisite luminosity; her cheeks dimple at precisely the perfect equation for maximum adoritude. And, while the Beezus of Beverly Cleary's kids' books is a 'tween older sister who struggles with first crushes and acne, Beezus as played by Gomez is a lovely, fully-formed teenager with perpetually, perfectly glossed lips. She has been designed to be a role model for girls and a lust object for boys (and, undoubtedly, creepy older men) without any true sexualization. They do their work very well indeed at those Disney labs.

As for the plot of Ramona and Beezus ... much of it's about how their dad loses his job, and the family might lose their house, and the parents are fighting behind closed doors. While this is certainly a fine, realistic issue to use as the fodder for tension in a kid's flick, to an adult viewer it's practically a horror film. I found myself getting deeply depressed during parts of Ramona and Beezus, because I understand exactly what a nightmare that sort of financial insecurity entails. So while your child may enjoy the unchallenging shenangians of Ramona et al, be warned that you may need to excuse yourself during the middle third to step outside and get a little sun on your face. You have been warned.
categories Reviews, Cinematical