It's so sentimental and sweet that you can almost forgive the kids' comedy Ramona and Beezus for not being nearly funny enough.
This adaptation of author Beverly Cleary's beloved 1950s novels about "Ramona the Pest," her sister Beatrice (Beezus, to her) and her life in the same world that Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy inhabit emphasizes childhood conflicts, confusion and emotions over slapstick — no great sin. But the movie takes too long to settle on that tone and blows more than a few laughs along the way.
Ramona (Joey King, cute as a button) shares a room with the sister she's always called Beezus (Selena Gomez, well cast). Beezus isn't shy about mocking her sister's fears — monsters under the bed, for instance. The 9-year-old has a vivid imagination. Hanging from a swing, she sees a vast canyon below. But she's undaunted.
"It's good to scare yourself once in a while" is her motto.
Contractors building an addition to her house are a cause for celebration, school projects are opportunities to show off, problems between mom and dad can be smoothed over if she just takes over the cooking.
Peopling Ramona's world are her seemingly humorless teacher (Sandra Oh, spot on), her parents (John Corbett, trying too hard, and Bridget Moynahan) and her favorite Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin of Big Love and Walk the Line). But Aunt Bea's old beau, played by the effortlessly charming Josh Duhamel, is back. Ramona worries that she'll be "reeled back in, like a bass."
That possible romance takes center stage for much of the movie, suggesting that director Elizabeth Allen (Aquamarine) was a lot more at home with the mushy stuff than with a little girl's antics. First love between Beezus and Henry Huggins also earns more screen time than is warranted in a movie with Ramona's name first in the title, especially since they changed the title of the source novel from Beezus and Ramona. There are more laughs in the average episode of Gomez's TV show Wizards of Waverly Place than in this.
But like other near-misses in the recent toddler-to-tyke-to-tween cinema (Kit Kittredge comes to mind), this one gamely wrestles with topical "growing up" matters — unemployment, life-altering decisions.