Sunday, August 15, 2010

In which I gush about Ramona and Beezus

I took Nora to see Ramona and Beezus last night. To the uninitiated, I was a Beverly Cleary fanatic when I was a little girl. Beezus and Ramona (the title of the first book in the series) was one of my first chapter books. I read it in first grade. I was taking an ill-fated gymnastics class and my mom bought the book for me one night while I was in class. In my mind that was the same night she slammed my hand in the locked car door in the Zayre's parking lot, but it was probably a different night.

I identified heavily with Ramona. I still do. I've learned since then that a lot of people do, which is one of the wonderful things about the books. Books were good, good friends to me when I was growing up. I think I read the Ramona books hundreds of times and all of the other Beverly Clearly books, even the dated 50s-era books like Jean and Johnny, dozens of times.

I had forgotten they were making a movie until about 6 weeks ago. I was in Pensacola and Nora was talking about a witch that was so scary, she scared herself! That reminded me of the scene in Ramona the Pest when Ramona was a witch for Halloween, picked out an awesomely frightful mask, but was so scared of it she ended up having to hide it. One afternoon while Jason was home and Anneliese was napping, I took Nora to Barnes & Noble to get a copy of Beezus and Ramona. We have to read them in order, am I right? Because of the limited selection in the store, I had to get the movie tie-in cover. I thought it was lame.

We both enjoyed reading the book and have been on the library waiting list for Ramona the Pest. In the meantime, I couldn't resist watching the trailer for the movie.

My initial complaint was that Selena Gomez is all wrong for Beezus. Which she totally is, but my curiosity was getting the best of me and I wanted to see the movie. I'd heard that dear old Beverly Cleary was very involved in the script and she liked the final product. Even Roger Ebert found the movie charming.

I was pleasantly surprised with the film. I had expected to merely tolerate it, but instead I found myself cherishing it. I can hardly think of a book-to-movie translation where they've gotten it this right. Even if I go in with really low expectations, I find books-to-movies to be wholly disappointing when I've read the book, especially if it's a book that is particularly beloved.

Joey King was great as Ramona. When I was a kid I had loved Sarah Polley in the PBS Ramona TV series. As an adult I've been a big fan of Sarah Polley's acting and I wondered if I had room for another big/small screen Ramona, but Joey King really fit the bill. I had to get over the fact that both of Ramona's parents are Sex and the City alumnae, but in the end I liked them both quite a bit. From Ginnifer Godwin's first scene, I worried that her portrayal of Aunt Beatrice would be too saccharine, but as the movie progressed I think she was wonderful. The character of Aunt Beatrice became fully realized in a way she never was for me in the books. As far as Disney teen Selena Gomez goes, her acting was just fine. I don't think that Beezus was written true to the books, though, and her plotline in the movie was the weakest one. I guess there's a reason they changed the title from Beezus and Ramona to Ramona and Beezus.

I think the thing I liked the most about the movie is that they really got the details right. I loved how the Quimby house was just a tiny bit shabby, how sometimes Ramonda's mom wore something that didn't fit quite right or was a little bit dated. (Side note: I loved their cozy bungalow and the amazing and stylish storage their house featured. I aspire to use space that wisely.) There were no throwaway scenes; almost every scene I can think of came directly from one of the books. I wasn't sure how they would incorporate all of the books and various ages of the characters in one film, but that translation was pretty seamless. The dialogue was sharp and often lifted effortlessly from the Cleary novels. Since I recently re-read the first book in the series, I had to smile that one of the businesses in the movie was named Bendix, after 4 year old Ramona's favorite doll in the book. Ramona's dad is an artist and his "work" was a loving tribute to illustrator Alan Tiegreen, who illustrated the Ramona books that were written in the 70s and 80s. I appreciated the fact that some of the humor was a little more complex and appealed to me as an adult, but it wasn't cheap or tawdry in the least. I'm no prude, but I usually find adult humor in children's movies to be tiresome and unfunny. The common thread in almost all of the children's books I have loved is rich plots and great characterization that is for kids, but not at kids, i.e. not dumbed-down. Cleary is probably the queen of this. I love her so!

One of the complaints I've read about the movie is that it's a little too squeaky clean for some, but that's really a-okay by me. Cleary began writing in what was arguably a more innocent or restrained time for children's literature (you should check out the Carolyn Haywood books if you want squeaky clean!), but she has never shied away from conflict. Ramona and Beezus had plenty of "modern problems" and modern context, but at the heart of the movie is strong characters and stories that generations can relate to.

Oh, and I totally want to live on Klickitat Street.

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