Ramona Quimby, that irresistible and irrepressible problem child beloved by millions of readers since 1955, surprisingly has never starred in her own movie. This situation is remedied, somewhat, by “Ramona and Beezus,” a sprightly, generic kidpic that flattens and condenses elements from Beverly Cleary’s deservedly popular novels. Fronted by a well-cast Joey King as Ramona and a miscast but eminently marketable Selena Gomez as Beezus, the Fox release should become a sought-after theatrical/homevid title among families with young daughters, even though (or perhaps because) it’s not the personal, distinctive portrait of misfit girlhood it could have been.
Until now, the sole attempt to bring Ramona to the screen was a short-lived 1988 Canadian TV skein, starring a young Sarah Polley as the lovable pest. Watching “Ramona and Beezus,” it’s hard not to feel a miniseries or even a film franchise would have better served the material; scribes Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay have essentially cherry-picked memorable episodes from Cleary’s eight Ramona books and shaped them as gracefully as possible (which is to say, not very) into a single feature.
Still, there are nostalgic pleasures to be had in production designer Brent Thomas’ sunny re-creation of the neighborhood in Portland, Ore. (actually Vancouver) where the books unfold — a setting that Cleary, whose Ramona novels were published over more than four decades, always intended to be timeless and accessible to every generation of readers.
Indeed, few American families in contempo children’s literature have seemed more inviting, more ordinary or more believable than the Quimbys of Klickitat Street — a healthy, generally happy clan consisting of loving parents Robert (John Corbett) and Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan) and their three daughters. With the youngest, Roberta (twins Aila McCubbing and Zanti McCubbing), still in diapers, the pic focuses primarily on overachieving teen Beatrice, better known as Beezus, and the hyperactive 9-year-old she sees as the bane of her existence, Ramona.
A wildly imaginative kid who can never keep her high spirits or her tongue in check, Ramona is a heroine as exasperating as she is endearing, and King — whose pretty, slightly impudent features can turn on a dime from grinning excitement to lip-quivering emotion — makes her sympathetic even at her brattiest. Her teacher (Sandra Oh, perfectly balancing authority and sarcasm) is quick to admonish Ramona when she gets stuck on the monkey bars or botches a show-and-tell assignment, while her parents’ reactions range from affectionate indulgence to bemusement and irritation.
Ramona feels the pressure to grow up more than ever when Mr. Quimby loses his job and becomes a stay-at-home dad while Mrs. Quimby goes back to work. Though this narrative throughline lends the film an unexpected timeliness, the main reason the novels endure is Cleary’s gift for rendering Ramona’s insecurities — her feelings of never measuring up to Beezus, of being constantly misunderstood despite the good intentions behind her every screw-up — in the most specific yet universal of terms.
“Ramona and Beezus” is nowhere near as resonant; it’s essentially a family sitcom (“Leave It to Ramona”), cramming a childhood’s worth of formative moments — throwing up at school, losing a pet, moving to a new house — into 103 busy minutes, slathered with pop tunes and predictable slapstick. The moment when Ramona angrily squeezes a tube of toothpaste into the sink — one of Cleary’s funniest, most acutely perceptive descriptions of childish acting-out — is reduced here to a laugh-track throwaway.
Helmer Elizabeth Allen (“Aquamarine”) rushes from one comic mishap to the next, occasionally using eye-popping composites and cutouts to illustrate Ramona’s fantasy life, but deeper feelings and insights prove elusive. A couple of romantic subplots — Beezus’ affection for longtime chum Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano), a renewed flirtation between Ramona’s Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) and old flame Hobart (Josh Duhamel) — exist primarily as diversions for older members of the audience.
Something similar seems to have motivated the casting of Gomez. Though she’s good at projecting big-sisterly aggravation, the Disney Channel pop star comes off as perhaps a shade too self-possessed, even too attractive, to entirely convince as the straight-laced, image-conscious Beezus; it’s hard to shake the feeling Gomez was tapped primarily to boost the pic’s awareness among teens (and to make the obligatory soundtrack contribution, “Live Like There’s No Tomorrow”).
Pic’s unnecessary title change from “Beezus and Ramona,” the first novel in the series, further smacks of market-conscious dumbing-down.