Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer opens with charm and exuberance, and like all good family films, it gave me permission to revisit a simpler time and place – in this case, where the worst thing in the world was having a boring summer vacation. Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last very long; with every passing scene, I became more annoyed by its innocence and hyperactivity, and when it was over, I was thankful to be a grownup. I guess they all can’t be heartwarming gems like Kit Kittredge: An American Girl or Ramona and Beezus. In all fairness, it is a step up for director John Schultz, whose previous film, Aliens in the Attic, was unendurably bad. This is not much of a compliment, but hey, this is not much of a movie. I can only work with what I’m given.
I’m admittedly not at all familiar with Megan McDonald’s original book series, but specific scenes in Judy Moody make it obvious that her vision would have been better suited for an animated film. The title character, played with pluck and great enthusiasm by newcomer Jordana Beatty, is so desperate for a thrilling summer that she devises a system of daring activities, each worth a certain number of points; when she images herself actually doing these dares, the visuals shift from live action to computer animation, and only then does the story come alive. This is true even of her physical appearance. As a human girl, we see an urban ragamuffin with unruly red hair, and one badly coiled lock sticking out like a cowlick; as a cartoon, we see an adorable moppet with a precious little curlicue resting on top of her head.
The plot, as it were, pits the energetic third-grader against her out-of-town friends in a race to earn 100 thrill points by the end of the summer. As the months pass, we’ll see her attempt boogie-boarding, tight-rope walking, watching a horror movie in a theater, and riding a roller coaster (Angelinos will recognize the ride as Goliath and the theme park as Six Flags Magic Mountain). Simultaneously, Judy’s kid brother, nicknamed Stink (Parris Mosteller), is on a mission to track down and capture Bigfoot, who has apparently been spotted several times in the area (I’m not even going to address the disparity between Bigfoot’s Pacific Northwest origins and the film’s Virginia location). Stink isn’t alone; he’s part of a Bigfoot club – and by club, I mean a group consisting of one teenage pet store employee and two very sad adults. The two plots will inevitably converge, as will a third subplot involving a scavenger hunt for Judy’s teacher, Mr. Todd (Jaleel White).
Mr. and Mrs. Moody – and I’m suppressing the urge to laugh right now – are conveniently out of the picture. Aren’t they always in movies like this? Taking their place is the dad’s sister, Aunt Opal (Heather Graham), who has travelled the world, arrives with a gigantic trunk full of art supplies, and promptly redecorates the house according to her own aesthetic values. How she obtains her supplies is a bit of a mystery, given the fact that she has no apparent source of income. She labels herself as a “guerilla artist,” which is a fancy term for someone who defaces public property just for the hell of it. Opal is the film’s single worst character, mostly because of the way she’s developed; she’s not eccentric enough to be interesting, nor is she grounded enough to be approachable. She’s in fact so detached from the overall plot that I’m forced to wonder how she and Judy learned to love each other by the end of the film.
The film is, essentially, a wired daydream for kids with short attention spans. How else to explain the sudden transition from a tender aunt/niece bonding scene to a bike chase, kick started by the supposed sighting of Bigfoot? The bike is quickly replaced by a van, which is driven – or, more accurately, recklessly maneuvered – by the sad Bigfoot enthusiasts mentioned earlier. I must admit that unnecessary car chases are preferable to instances of scatological humor, especially in a kid’s movie. Let’s just say that you shouldn’t eat a snow cone, an ice cream cone, and an entire batch of cotton candy before riding a roller coaster. Nor should you make sandwiches in the same area where animal droppings are sorted into Ziploc bags.
Since I seem to be searching for some angle of approach, let me address the overall look of the film. Every scene is saturated with color, giving the story a heightened reality I found appealing. It’s as if the art directors and set decorators took visual cues from a box of crayons. There are also numerous examples of words floating in the air around Judy’s head, each handwritten letter distinctively rough and childish in appearance. They don’t compensate for the film’s weaknesses, but a little visual creativity never hurts. To say that Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer is an awful movie would be too harsh. It would be much more accurate to say that it underachieves, like a kid who spends the study period doodling rather than learning the multiplication tables.
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