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Joey King (right) and Selena Gomez are, respectively, Ramona and Beezus, a new film based on the beloved books by Beverly Cleary.ALAN MARKFIELD

Ramona and Beezus

  • Directed by Elizabeth Allen
  • Written by Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay
  • Based on the books by Beverly Cleary
  • Starring Joey King and Selena Gomez
  • Classification: G

Before the curtain goes up on Ramona and Beezus, the movie theatre is a playground - kids chase each other, spill popcorn and wiggle in their parents' laps. Then, in a brief minor miracle, all is quiet as we find Ramona Quimby (Joey King), a rambunctious 9-year-old, hanging from a jungle gym in her schoolyard, imagining a vast chasm beneath her. "If you can't be brave at recess, how can you be brave when it counts?" she asks.

A good sentiment, and a cue that some serious challenges are coming: Ramona is determined to save her house from something called "foreclosure." She's pulled from her invented world into the reality of family finances, summed up by her big sister Beezus (Selena Gomez): "Have you seen the bills they get? Everything costs money - even water."

Parents Robert (John Corbett) and Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan) start arguing in hushed tones and the sisters prepare for life-changing results with age-appropriate guesses: Beezus suspects they will move, and Ramona imagines the bank will literally carry their house away.

But the conflict seems subdued after sugary-sweet establishing scenes of their home, where Ramona acts out a bad case of middle-child syndrome with, among other antics, emptying toothpaste into the sink. Her vandalism gets praise ("nice job on the toothpaste. Good grip") from onscreen parental figures in soft focus. Yes, the Quimbys seem destined to live happily ever after. Even the film's lone antagonist, Ramona's teacher, Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), is only wicked because she frowns on Ramona's invented words; she still has a heart beneath those conservative blouses.

Director Elizabeth Allen, with screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, adapted the film from the eight-book Ramona series by children's author Beverly Cleary. Until now Cleary, 94, has kept a tight hold on her brainchild, who dates back to the fifties. The film updates the early print stories with references to the Great Recession and a romantic interest for Beezus.

Ramona is a big name, but 10-year-old King won't disappoint diehard fans. She is never anything short of adorable, yet brings a range of believable 9-year-old emotions to her character: innocence, betrayal, grief, embarrassment, confusion, helplessness, envy, and a mean temper tantrum.

In most of the books, big sister Beezus is barely a tween, but she's cast in the movie as a high-school student - no doubt to wrangle Gomez's fan base into the same theatres as the wiggling tots. Despite her in-your-face Disney stardom, Gomez is less of a distraction, and more of a subtle and caring big sister. Fans, fear not: Ramona is still the star.

The film tries to appeal to audiences of all ages, and for the most part "reels you in like a sea bass," as Ramona would say. Onscreen romances span from high-school crushes to marriages. In the case of Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Hobart (Josh Duhamel), it's high-school sweethearts revisited. Most out of their teens will have a hard time believing that Hobart is a teenage rebel turned hopeless romantic. But whatever is lacking between the two is made up in their interactions with the kids - when Hobart comes running from the garden, brandishing a shovel and feigning insanity, Ramona goes running and screaming; he's a convincing kid at heart. As Bea and Ramona, King and Goodwin have a younger-sister pact that all siblings can relate to.

But it's not the older (and it turns out, none-the-wiser) couples who are most interesting. It's Beezus and her high-school friend Henry Huggins, played by a perfectly awkward Hutch Dano. As the pair takes childhood friendship into their teens, Beezus tries in vain to take private phone calls and is inevitably embarrassed by everyone related to her. Everything is end-of-the-world dramatic in her so-called "love life."

Aside from being a "pest" of a little sister, Ramona is a daddy's girl. The books make Robert Quimby into a kind of superhero. But Corbett's Robert, with his homemade sweatshirts, cheesy dancing and egg-cracking on his head is, at times, a bit nauseating. Corbett (of Sex and the City fame) is oddly cast, but still a lovable, if dorky, dad, capable of saving the day. Anyway, the adults - and their bills - are there primarily as foils for the misadventures of the children.

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