For the uninitiated, Megan McDonald's fictional heroine Judy Moody is the lead character in a series of books for those kids who have outgrown Ramona and Junie B. Jones but aren't ready for young-adult material just yet. The first movie inspired by those novels, Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, isn't an adaptation, but rather a fresh adventure co-written by McDonald herself that feels aimed at a younger audience than her books shoot for.
After finishing the third grade, Judy Moody (winningly played by newcomer Jordana Beatty) plans for the greatest summer ever with her three best friends. She's made a chart where they'll earn points for doing exciting stuff like riding roller coasters, but when she learns that two of her friends are going away for the summer she's worried the fun may never start. As if that weren't bad enough, mom and dad have to go to California and Aunt Opal (Heather Graham), whom Judy doesn't know, is coming to stay with her and her younger brother, Stink. Luckily, Opal turns out to be a cool bohemian artist, and soon she and Judy come up with outrageous, cool things to do all summer.
There's a distorted cartoonish quality to the film's design -- the inside of the Moody home recalls a toned-down variation on the house Tim Burton created for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and throughout the film words and drawings regularly appear onscreen. While all of this works to put us inside Judy's highly creative mind, the filmmakers would have been wise to remember that a little of that stuff goes a long way.
The young Beatty charms early and often; she's neither dumb nor sickeningly precocious and director John Schultz mostly avoids the moments where she looks like a young actor following orders rather than just a kid reacting naturally. She's paired well with Parris Mosteller, the tyke portraying Stink -- he's saddled with an adorable speech impediment, and he's got the same otherworldly quality that Jonathan Lipnicki had in Jerry Maguire. With his Bigfoot fixation and his constant spouting of whatever comes into his little mind, Stink gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie.
The problem with Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer is that it gets stuck in an uncomfortable valley between being an out-right farce and retaining some semblance of reality. It's trying hard to entertain kids, and fans will appreciate all the references to the books that are layered into the visuals. Sadly, it's frustrating that the movie never gets as wacky as the design makes us think it should be, but it's still too distorted to seem like real life -- as if the director didn't have the boldness to commit one way or the other. Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer would be so much stronger if it had as much bold confidence in itself as its lead character does in herself.