As you probably know if you were born anytime after 1950, Ramona Quimby is an imaginative, spunky little girl who’s always getting into trouble without meaning to. She was a central figure in eight novels written by Beverly Cleary between 1955 and 1999, yet somehow she has never been the subject of a movie until now. It’s a little disgraceful that Marmaduke got a movie before Ramona did.
But better late than never! “Ramona and Beezus,” a sunny and guileless G-rated confection, tries earnestly to make up for lost time by squeezing something from almost every one of those eight books into one movie. I get the feeling they were afraid they’d never get a chance to make another Ramona movie and crammed everything into this one. The resulting story is a jumble, and there are too many side characters, but golly if it isn’t pretty darned infectious.
Ramona began as a 4-year-old and was 9 in the last couple books; it’s this older Ramona that is presented here. Played by an absurdly adorable and expressive 10-year-old named Joey King, Ramona has a happy life on Clickitat Street in Portland, Oregon. Though her 15-year-old sister, Beezus (Selena Gomez), thinks she’s a pest, and her dad (John Corbett) and mom (Bridget Moynahan) are sometimes exasperated by her energy, they all love each other. It’s not Walton Mountain, maybe, but it’s close.
The crisis comes when Dad gets laid off and the family might lose the house. These are big problems, but the movie — written by Laurie Craig (“Ella Enchanted”) and Nick Pustay and directed by Elizabeth Allen (“Aquamarine”) — addresses them from a 9-year-old’s point of view. Ramona tries to help the family’s financial situation by selling lemonade, then by auditioning for a TV commercial. Through it all, Ramona remains optimistic and plucky, if accident-prone and often muddy.
Meanwhile, Beezus starts to feel a little more-than-friend-y around lifelong friend Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano). Also meanwhile, Beezus and Ramona’s Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), who despite her name is very young, comes to visit. Also meanwhile — there is a lot of meanwhile in this movie — next-door neighbor Howie Kemp (Jason Spevack) is visited by his Uncle Hobart (Josh Duhamel), who used to have a romance with Aunt Bea.
Whew! There is a lot going on here. Though it’s ultimately all about Ramona, an effort has been made to turn it into an ensemble film, and the whole cast is single-minded about doing it right. You get the sense that they respect the material. It reminds me of when celebrities appear on “Sesame Street”: No matter what your usual public persona is, when you’re here you do things our way.
Some of the uncertainty about which characters to focus on might have been unavoidable. As the title of 1955’s “Beezus and Ramona” suggests, Ramona was originally a secondary character to her older sister. But Beezus herself started out as a secondary character in another series of books, which were actually about Henry Huggins. Ramona was the Fonzie of the bunch, breaking out as the fan favorite and, ultimately, the star. The film is called “Ramona and Beezus” to reflect that shift, but it tries to keep an eye on everyone else, too.
A glance at the Wikipedia pages for the novels shows that the movie borrows plot elements from “Ramona the Brave” (1975), “Ramona and Her Father” (1977), “Ramona and Her Mother” (1979), “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” (1981), and “Ramona Forever” (1984) — but not, as far as I can tell, from the very first one, “Beezus and Ramona.”
That’s probably more research than I needed to do. The film is sweet without being sappy, and gentle without being lame. There’s some real tenderness and honesty in the way Ramona and Beezus treat each other, allegations of peskiness aside. The target audience will like it, and the target audience’s parents will probably smile, too.
B- (1 hr., 44 min.; )