Child’s tale come to life

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Know how to give mild G-rated fare a little something special?

Cast Sandra Oh as an elementary school teacher who enjoys her orderly ways and who regards the Ramona half of Ramona and Beezus, taken from the venerable Beverly Cleary children’s books, as more challenge than charmer.

Oh’s droll supporting turn as Ramona’s third-grade instructor reminds us how much good a performer can do even when the material makes her work for it. Directed by Elizabeth Allen, the film is darned if it does and darned if it doesn’t. If a film of such unfashionable gentleness fares indifferently or worse at the box office, it’ll only encourage the studios in the direction of the coarse, the obvious and the Shrek. On the other hand: If Ramona and Beezus does find an audience, its success can be framed as brand loyalty to Cleary’s originals.

Screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay have cooked up a new scenario for Cleary’s familiar characters, all living in the merry whirlwind generated by Ramona Quimby of Portland, Ore. (Ramona and Portland are played by Joey King and Vancouver, B.C., respectively.) Dad finds himself unemployed, which threatens to uproot the clan. Beezus has boy questions, not “troubles” per se, but still. Ramona tries out for a commercial, testing her ordinarily healthy self-esteem. The girls’ aunt is the object of a neighbor’s affections. He broke her heart once, so she tells him she requires “some sign of commitment” from him before joining him in Alaska. Does the film end with a wedding? Do you think you’ll get that one out of me?

King establishes a plausible push-pull chemistry with Selena Gomez’s Beezus, whose popularity and haircare preoccupations contrast with her little sister’s roughhousing. (Gomez played Alex on Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place.) The parents are played by John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan. Corbett is relaxed to a fault; Moynahan, by contrast, brings an unsettling air of smiling calm to nearly every scene.

The movie is not bad, but it’s not much. Also, a bit of a spoiler (warning) but nonetheless: At one point in Beezus and Ramona, the father tells Ramona that the family couldn’t stay together without her (“You really did save us, kiddo”), and I’m not sure how young children of divorced parents are going to perceive that sentiment. If it’s up to Ramona to keep the unit intact, does that mean it would’ve been her fault, in story terms, if she’d “failed”? Maybe not. But maybe.

For the record: Josh Duhamel brings some welcome exuberance to the role of the goofball suitor, Hobart. Like Oh, he’s fun to watch. This is something never to be underestimated.

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