Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Movie Review: Ramona and Beezus

As a child, I was an avid reader.  I loved Little Women, the Little House on the Prairie books, the Betsy-Tacy series, and anything related to Anne of Green Gables.  Charming but feisty female heroines were always among my favorites.

And yet I don't remember loving Ramona Quimby.  I remember reading books like Ramona the Pest and Beezus and Ramona, and I know that I enjoyed them.  I appreciated Ramona's funny antics, and understood many of her gripes about how grown-ups just don't understand.  But I don't think that I counted the Ramona books my favorites because, as a child myself, I didn't fully get Ramona. 

As an adult, I totally do.

About a year ago, I started reading the series again, this time reading out loud to my own young daughter.  And I have fallen totally and completely in love with Ramona Quimby and her world.  Because as a parent myself now, I can see and appreciate  Ramona for who she truly is:  the ultimate high-need child who is struggling to reconcile her natural impulses and vivid imagination with the strict (and unrealistic) expectations of many of the adults in her world.

Author Beverly Cleary wrote the Ramona series as an attempt to give children what they wanted, books about kids "just like us."  She claims that she was frustrated by the overwhelming number of children's books where "children learned to be better children" and she believes that part of Ramona's popularity stems from the fact that "she is never reformed." 

Throughout the series, Ramona is constantly getting into trouble and challenging the status quo.  She wants to make up words and spell them her way.  She wears pajamas under her clothes and cracks raw eggs over her head.  She throws tantrums when life doesn't work the way she wants, and can never seem to follow the rules at school.  She has all the rebellious and high-spirited qualities of a high-need child, but she also has a good heart and good intentions.  She means well, even when it doesn't seem that way.        

Ramona's confused attempts to understand and fit into the grown-up world make great comedy, but they also point to an important theme in the series:  that being a kid is hard, that learning to grow up and fit into the adult world isn't easy, and that children need and deserve adults in their life who value their opinions and understand just how challenging growing up can be. 

Ramona grapples with some very serious issues in the books:  her father's unemployment, the death of a beloved family pet, tension in her parent's marriage, just to name a few.  In true Ramona fashion, she doesn't always deal with these issues well.  But she is fortunate to have a family of people who love her, even when she's driving them crazy.  Beverly Cleary has blessed Ramona with parents who understand her well enough to work through their exasperation and see the good intentions beneath the surface.  The kind of parents that every child needs to make their way through childhood.  The kind of parent that I want to be. 

And I think that's why I've enjoyed the books so much.  Because I like seeing a child who doesn't always behave.  It's realistic.  And even more, I like seeing parents who hande it well.  More often than not, Mrs. Quimby's first reaction to Ramona's outbursts is a smile.  She understands Ramona.  She's rarely threatening or yelling, because that's not what Ramona needs.  Beverly Cleary shows Ramona in particular and children in general as deserving of respect, and I think that's a message that is far too rare in our society today.

And now, finally, Ramona has come to the big-screen. 

I'm always hesitant when I hear about children's books being made into movies.  For one thing, movies rarely live up to the books they are based upon.  The storyline usually changes, the characters are never cast the way I've imagined them in my head, and director's always seem try too hard to make the story "relatable for today's audience." 

(I'm thinking of movies like Cheaper By The Dozen here; a decently entertaining movie, but just a vague shadow of the book that shares it's title.)

So it was with trepidation that I headed to the movie theatre and purchased a ticket for Ramona and Beezus.  They've already messed with the titles -- there's a book called Beezus and Ramona but no Ramona and Beezus.  And Selena Gomez?  I wasn't quite seeing how the flippant, self-centered Alex from Wizards of Waverly Place could transform into Ramona's serious, studious, teen-angst-ridden older sister Beezus. 

And of course I was concerned with the casting of Ramona herself.  Who could do justice to the role?

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised.  The movie was not the same as the books, and, of course, there were parts that I would have liked to have seen handled differently.  But I do think that, for the most part, director Elizabeth Allen gets Ramona too.

Ramona's vivid imagination is highlighted in several fantasy sequences -- when she's swinging on the rings at the playground the camera pans back to show her hanging far above a canyon.  When she's jumping through the hole in her house, she's suddenly parachuting high above Klickitat Street.  And at the end of the movie when she runs away, she's walking through the big city and past the Statue of Liberty (completely impossible considering that the Quimby family lives in Washington). 

Obviously, none of these things actually happen, but they remind us as viewers that children see the world completely differently from adults.  They put us on Ramona's level, and allow us to empathize with her more fully.

The movie combines all the books into one story, so, no, it isn't completely accurate.  But it hits many of the high points from the series -- Mr. Quimby's unemployment and Mrs. Quimby's return to work, the death of Picky-Picky, the courtship between Aunt Bea and Howie's Uncle Hobart, and Ramona's love/hate relationship with her sister Beezus.  It's funny and poignant, and Selena Gomez and Joey King exceeded my expectations as Beezus and Ramona.  John Corbett of Sex and the City fame was also surprisingly good as the world-weary but loving Mr. Quimby.

Overall, the film was a bit sappier and more sentimental than the books, which I think is a nod to today's economy and an intentional ploy to tug on the heartstrings of an audience who can relate to economic hardship and appreciate an emphasis on family values.  I'm also guessing that Beverly Cleary would have liked to see Ramona's behavior portrayed as a litte bit worse.  As sympathetic a character as Ramona is in the books, she is also very clearly more of a handful than she is portrayed as in the movie. 

But I still liked the movie more than I expected to.  What I liked most were the scenes where the adults showed their willingness to understand Ramona and the difficulty of being a kid.  I was glad to see the scene from the book Ramona and Her Mother where Ramona runs away because she feels unloved was included in the movie.  Just as in the book, Mrs. Quimby calls her daughter's bluff and packs Ramona a suitcase when she announces that she's running away. 

(FYI:  I'm tucking this idea away in my mind to use in the next few years if necessary.) 

Only after Ramona has started to walk down the street does she realize that her mother put all kinds of heavy things in the suitcase on purpose so that she can't get very far.  It's great parenting -- calm, rational, and most important, effective.  How many of us want to yell and scream and totally lose our cool when our kid's do things like this?

Overall,though, Ramona and Beezus is a fun and entertaining movie.  It may not accurately follow the series, but it  does capture the essence of Ramona's world.  It's not great cinema, but I think it's a movie worth seeing. 

But then go home and reread the books. 

Because, as usual, the book is better. 

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