'Judy Moody': One Hyper Bummer
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Based on a series of children's stories by Megan McDonald, "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer" will probably amuse kids with the zip and zing and zest of the story and its shooting style. For accompanying adults, the constant stimulus will be entirely overwhelming, as if you were trying to drink from a fire hose pumping out high-fructose corn syrup with the force of a typhoon.
This is a film where events as normally calm and common as someone turning their head at the dinner table to talk -- not a shocked whip-around, or a spring-loaded double-take -- are accompanied by sound effects, one where the score constantly purrs and pumps under the action. Actions as everyday as bicycling down the street have to be goosed with fast-forward action and blurred post-production speed trails. Perhaps this is what it takes to get through to kids in today's fast-paced media landscape, but after watching "Judy Moody," I felt like I wanted to drink some caffeinated soda and play video games for a few hours to bring my heart rate down after its mix of sharing and shouting.
Exclaiming how summer is normally "extra snoresville," Judy (Jordana Beatty) is trying to plan the best summer ever with her pals -- handsome Rocky (Garrett Ryan), friendly Frank (Preston Bailey) and bright Amy (Taylar Hender) -- where they'll each earn "thrill points" for activities, and the kid with the highest score at the end of the season will be the winner. But Rocky's off to circus camp, and Amy's off to Borneo, leaving Judy and Frank (along with Judy's Bigfoot-obsessed little brother, Stink (Parris Mosteller), to earn thrill points in boring suburbia. Judy's mom and dad have to go help a sick relative, as well, meaning that fun, bubbly Aunt Opal (Heather Graham, a wide-eyed world-traveler whose flowing wardrobe is clearly cinematic shorthand for "artsy free spirit") is in charge in loco parentis, although clearly much more loco than parentis.
While part of me admires the movie's depiction of fun activity with friends as the best thing to do with a childhood summer -- in our sedentary age, a message worth getting to kids -- it's also a bit frustrating how much the film focuses on Judy turning enjoyment into a competition, something you can beat your friends at. Judy's obsession with "thrill points" makes her, bluntly, into a little bit of a fun fascist and drama princess, and no fun whatsoever to hang out with, despite Beatty's charm.
Like the recent -- and better -- "Ramona and Beezus" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," this film intersperses the action here with animated fantasies, where we see Judy's imagination manifested in rounded, pastel, computer-generated animation. Graham is charming and breezy and bright, and escapes with a modicum of dignity. But for every laugh in the film, there's a note of concern -- the fact Aunt Opal can't drive is presented as hilarious while she plows across suburban lawns, even with Judy and Stink in the car, for just one. (There's also a lot of poop-and-pee jokes, but those are now, seemingly, part and parcel of kids movies -- like men not wearing hats indoors or Ed Hardy clothing anywhere, that battle was lost long ago.)
"Judy Moody" is less a summer-fun story than it is the kid-film equivalent of "shock and awe," a bombardment so brutal that it leaves you cowed and crumpled in the force of its full-frontal assault. Watching the revved-up kids bouncing and bubbling out of the press screening I attended, I couldn't help but think that "Judy Moody" works as the entertainment equivalent of giving your kids a meal of nothing but junk food: They'll love it in the moment, and you'll get a little peace and quiet, but dealing with the aftereffects of the sensory sugar high isn't going to be fun for anyone.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.