A question that I didn't even think about asking until recently: how long has it been since the last live-action G-rated movie to get a wide release? I get April, 2009, with Hannah Montana: The Movie. Which leads to the more pointed question, how long has it been since the last live-action G-rated movie that actually treats its audience with something like respect, and is generally speaking a film good enough that you'd want to take a child to see, rather than could take a child to see in the absence of anything actually worthwhile? Long enough that I'm not even terribly willing to hazard a guess.

This thought did not, of course, come upon me from nowhere, falling from the sky as an insight from the gods; it was triggered by the new movie Ramona and Beezus, adapted from an iconic series of children's novels written by Beverly Cleary over a stretch of 45 years, from 1954's Beezus and Ramona to 1999's Ramona's World. The film is both live-action and G-rated, and there seems to be no better way to describe it than this: it's a nice family film. That phrase has an unavoidable tang of condescension, almost begging to be read in a supercilious tone, as in, "oh, yes, it's nice, for a family film". Yet I mean no condescension at all. If a family film is what you're looking for, it's a nice one - far better than looking for a family film and spotting only soulless product, like the self-same Hannah Montana: The Movie, or something eager to prove how much smarter it is than the children whose parents are paying to see it.

Cobbling together bits and pieces from every one of the Ramona novels except for Beezus and Ramona (the one with the most similar title!), the film looks a bit like this: Ramona Quimby (Joey King) is something like ten years old, and a constant source of irritation to her teenage sister Beatrice (Selena Gomez) - "Beezus" is a nickname bestowed by Ramona when she was just learning to talk, and trisyllabic words were a bit of a challenge - as well as a sometimes unwelcome distraction to her parents (John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan). Though by no means a malevolent child, Ramona rather enjoys letting her imagination run away, you see, which leads to problems at school, and too much energy at home, where things are beginning to strain in the face of The Current Economy, especially when Mr. Quimby is let go from his job following a merger. Meanwhile, the one adult who seems to "get" Ramona, her beloved aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), has the temerity to fall in love with her old flame Hobart (Josh Duhamel), the uncle of Ramona's best friend Howie (Jason Spevack); and this hits the girl in the gut, as the worst in a series of apparent betrayals that just prove that nobody in her life really values her.

Though not as resolutely episodic as the novels, Ramona and Beezus (that title needs to go; Beezus is hardly a co-lead, and barely the second-most important character) is very much a series of vignettes, a collection of incidents from Ramona's life plucked up to be glanced at and thought about and then put away in favor of the next. It is thus, like the books, more a depiction of childhood remembered than childhood experienced, though we are only very rarely given a viewpoint outside of Ramona's (primarily in the depiction of Bea and Hobart's courtship, which is treated with sensitivity and tenderness and is very sweet and nevertheless feels kind of out of place, like it was meant to give something emotional for adults to hang on to in the face of so much childish behavior, like adults were never children, or something). Even if it is plainly written by adults (Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, to be precise), the constant presence of Ramona between us and the action ensures that the film itself never adopts a grown-up awareness on events; the grown-ups in the audience are certainly invited to understand things about the narrative that the protagonist does not, but it is not a requirement of the drama and Ramona and Beezus ends up as something even rarer than a nice family film: it is a film about children that completely honors the perspective of childhood.

Truthfully, it's not a very exceptional piece of filmmaking: director Elizabeth Allen hedges her bets and more often than not works against the material to keep things "poppy" and all that, whether it's in the slightly-too-frantic daydreams that Ramona keeps having (presented as mixed-media animated sequences, though "animated" carries all the wrong implications; the closest analogue are the dreams in The Science of Sleep), which add an unwanted touch of zaniness, or the frequent pop song montages, which are presented with all the criminal banality common to the form. This on top of the baseline simplicity of Allen's aesthetic: Ramona and Beezus is entirely functional, visually, with exactly the combination of wide and medium shots that you learn in film school, and a perfectly ordinary editing scheme, and nothing really flashy at all - which is good, since the flashiest parts are the ones that come off the worst. And that's pretty telling: after all, the film is for and about very young people whose understanding of the world is still forming, and while an avant-garde feast of aesthetic experiments might make some of the young girls in the target audience want to grow up to be the next Maya Deren, it would run hard against the film's success at being nice. And the niceness is all.

Functionality is all that Ramona and Beezus wants or needs, and it's certainly that. The foursome of King, Gomez, Corbett and Moynahan are not remotely convincing as a set of relatives by any concept of genetics I'm familiar with, but they still manage to play the part of a family well enough that you stop wondering how a couple as balls-out WASPy as Corbett and Moynahan could have a Hispanic daughter by the third or fourth scene. And in the crucial role of Ramona, King gives a much better performance than we'd have any right to expect from a ten-year-old actress: though she can't do much to assuage the preciousness of some lines and moments (especially those which Cleary originally wrote for a much younger child), she's charming and charismatic as all hell. and even if you, as I did, find her a bit cloying at first, she grows on you (alas, this is not true of any of the other preteen actors, but let us not dwell on that). Frankly, with King turning in an appealing, convincing performance, nothing else in Ramona and Beezus could have redeemed it; but as an avatar of guileless youth, the actress and the character are entirely convincing. The result isn't a film that depicts the deepest truths of childhood in the way of the masterpieces of the form (The Fallen Idol, for example), but it gets the job done: in an age where "kids' movies" have become the lowest and most contemptible of all subgenres, it is a movie that actually makes me wish I could acquire a kid that I could show it to, not for any life lesson it imparts or profound moment of aesthetic sublimity, but simply because it is a pleasant way to pass some time and be made happy and sad by little things that are well-observed.