This past weekend, all about what passes these days for kid-oriented entertainment, was one not well spent for this adult movie viewer. Take a brain-dead movie like Bob Clark’s Baby Geniuses (1999). Please. When I realize this blurry, indifferent nightmare of semi-animated babies doing alarming things, eardrum-grating wisecracks (all overdubbed for infants and, apparently, the adult leads), and the presence of slumming Kathleen Turner in full Cruella DeVil, I’ll-Eat-Any-Actor-That-Moves! mode wasn’t the worst movie I’d see all weekend (not to mention the worst talking baby movie I’d see all weekend), well, so much for thoughtful, well-mannered reflection.
I also ended up in front of the thin but enjoyable The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999), Henson Productions’ feature-length vanity vehicle for their furry red star which, with help from Mandy Patinkin in full Snidely Whiplash I’ll-Eat-Any-Actor-Than-Moves! mode, is good, solid, interactive fun for the under-six set. (Elmo talks to the audience, which is presumably packed with kids, and encourages them to shout back responses, a tactic that doesn’t translate to home video with 100% success, even when boosted by a canned audience track.)
I slept through what might have been the best movie of the weekend, the Farrelly Brothers’ gleefully gross live action-animation mix Osmosis Jones (2001)-- we cranked it up off of Netflix Instant Play at 9:30 Saturday night, after my oldest daughter and I had spent the first two-thirds of the day hiking and swimming, and if ever there were a sure-fire recipe for Snoring Old Man in a Blanket it is a scenario such as this. But the dregs were saved for last—Amy Heckerling’s pointless and dreadfully conceived sequel to her late-80s hit, this one cleverly titled Look Who’s Talking Too! (1990). The entire "justification" for this warmed-over comedy is the addition of two new baby voices to keep little Mikey (Bruce Willis) company— cute little sister Julie (Rosanne Barr) and best buddy Eddie (Damon Wayans)—and if the mere description of this stunt casting doesn’t tickle your tummy with bubbly giggles, then you’re probably in for as much grimacing and eye-rolling as I went through over the deliberately infantile humor, which Heckerling has focused on here to the absolute exclusion of a narrative reason for it to exist in the first place. John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Olympia Dukakis and Elias Koteas-- Whaaaa??!!-- are left entirely without a single interesting thing to do, but Mel Brooks does make a cameo voice appearance as a talking toilet, a Freudian vaudeville nightmare which Mikey imagines wanting to eat more than his poo-poo. But beyond that, LWT2 is strictly a used diaper.
But one movie made up for all the mediocrity. Ramona and Beezus (2010) is not based on the Beverly Cleary book of the same name, because there is no Beverly Clearly book of the same name. There is one, however, called Beezus and Ramona and it, like seven or eight other of Cleary’s beloved books, serves as the source for this new movie’s episodic structure, built as it has been out of incidents and settings faithfully derived from Cleary’s series of stories revolving around precocious Ramona Quimby (played here by Joey King) and her older, oft-impatient sister (Radio Disney superstar Selena Gomez). I always loved Cleary’s books, which began with Henry Huggins (1950) in which Beezus’ newspaper-slinging boyfriend took center stage, because they were sharply written, funny, unerringly sympathetic to the juvenile point of view without having to make adults looks like dummies in the process, and packed with neighborhood atmosphere—Cleary painted a vivid picture of life on Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon, for Henry and his dog Ribsy, and it was a thrill for me as a child growing up in Southeastern Oregon to read books that were derived, at least tangentially, from a world I knew. (Henry pedaled a paper route for the Oregon Journal, an afternoon daily and rival to The Oregonian, which passed into history in 1982.) But I gobbled up the Beezus and Ramona books too, which came five years later in 1955, and just as eagerly, perhaps more eagerly. They never seemed like girls’ books to me, largely because Cleary’s humor, while rooted securely in the nuclear family model of the ‘50s, made way for a sharp sense of underdog irreverence in the Ramona character which was immensely entertaining and easily identifiable whether you were in a skirt or suspenders. I knew I loved this little girl, who was rambunctious, good-hearted, terribly impatient and a magnet for every conceivable shade of trouble, when I read of her confusion upon singing the national anthem on the first day of school. Cleary spends the better part of a chapter allowing Ramona to express her confusion over what exactly the “dawnzer lee light” might be, as well as her emerging fascination with this new phrase, and it was then that I knew these books had captured the rhythm of life for kids in a suburban neighborhood as well as the way they could struggle to wrap their heads around concepts and feelings they often weren’t ready to understand.
The new movie, directed by Elizabeth Allen (Aquamarine), from a cleverly distilled script by Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, is blessedly nonfrantic and unpretentious as it communicates those pleasant nuances present in Cleary’s writing with surety and ease. The filmmakers have trusted that Ramona’s adventures did not need an infusion of Cats and Dogs-style action movie energy; they have allowed the movie to be energized instead by everyday, often uncomfortable, emotionally confusing episodes which Ramona navigates with the occasional blast of imagination, blasts which have a delightful D.I.Y. design that is true to Ramona's inner consciousness as well as a gentle raspberry launched in the direction of slicker kids’ movie fantasies. When contractors remodeling the Quimby house take out a wall, Ramona and her pal Howie joyously leap through the hole in the wall from the house to the ground, a short drop which Ramona, attached to a bed sheet parachute, turns into a triumphant plunge into the blue dotted with messy tufts of cotton clouds—the neighborhood onto which she descends is made entirely of models and play toys.)
Ramona and Beezus also has a nice, patient rhythm which carries our freckled heroine from one misadventure to the other—classroom run-ins with her stern teacher Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), a disastrous attempt to reunite her beloved Aunt Bea (Gennifer Goodwin) with her hunky ex (Josh Duhamel), and the emotional fallout from a family in disarray when her Dad (John Corbett) loses his job and her Mom (Bridget Moynahan) begins to feel the stress of suddenly being the sole provider. King and Gomez communicate the gap in experience between Ramona and Beezus (also named Beatrice, but nicknamed after Ramona’s charmed mispronunciation), a realistic friction between siblings separated by seven or eight years, which is leavened by the moments in which these two let their guard down and try to help each other understand the seriousness of their situation. The performances have weight, which is in part, I’m sure, due to the openness with which the director and writers have approached the material—there isn’t an ounce of the kind of cynicism typically on display in the average lazy production aimed at this demographic in Ramona and Beezus. Yet the movie isn’t a dour affair either. It’s rather remarkable, in fact, how cast and crew have managed to maintain a balance between delights and difficulties and come up with an entertainment that is satisfying and reconcilable to the way young girls and boys see the world without excluding their parents from a degree of that same emotional satisfaction.
The cast is uniformly good—King has spunk without the attendant obnoxiousness that mars so many young performers, and Gomez, the more seasoned Hollywood actress, is perfectly fine, letting the appropriate amount of sunshine out at just the right moments to counter her slightly sour teenaged disposition. Oh is deadpan delightful as Mrs. Meacham, who turns out to be far more understanding (and much less tightly wrapped) than Ramona would have ever suspected, and young Hutch Dano is almost eerily how I imagined Henry, brought up to 2010 standards, of course. And though I would have appreciated more colorful actors as Mr. and Mrs. Quimby, Corbett has a strong connection with King that serves them both well, as does Moynahan, who I must say looks alarmingly, distracting thin here. (Perhaps she shows her stress too well.) It may be a temptation, in the face of so much overblown entertainment in American movies pitched at kids and adults these days, to overrate the ease and humor and gentle (but in no way precious) sensibility with which Beverly Cleary’s stories have finally been brought to the screen in Ramona and Beezus (with the author’s famously reticent blessing). But kid movies that avoid trading wisecracks and crude emotional button-pushing for genuine character shading are as rare as any authentic movie surprises these days. Ramona and Beezus honors its origins, as well as the bond between parents and their kids, both the ones on screen and the ones in the theater being absorbed by the story.