Curious George

Will Ferrell has been in every single movie released in the last two years. Ok, maybe it just seems that way since he shows up everywhere you turn (no less than 12 times since the beginning of 2004.) Apparently deciding that on at least one movie he didn’t want to go through make-up and wardrobe, he instead voiced the role of The Man in the Yellow Hat in Curious George, Imagine Studios animated take on children’s literature most inquisitive monkey. Adapting a beloved children’s book character for the big screen isn’t easy. Filmmakers are up against the original material and all the attendant affection it’s garnered, previous adaptations for the small screen (living or in video form), and the fact that it’s hard to develop a story covering a character who has grown on us through many different books. Director Matthew O’Callaghan and writer Ken Kaufman gave it the old college try in bringing H.A and Margaret Rey’s Curious George character to the big (and now small) screen. I’m happy to say they mostly succeeded.

Bucking the trend of bigger and bolder 3D animation in the Pixar style for even the most pedestrian animated stories, Curious George is rendered in 2D (with CGI backgrounds) to better capture the look and feel of the books. The world George inhabits is bright, round, and bold, with lots of primary colors to capture his (and our) attention. In one of the extras on this disc, the production designer says that all the sharp lines and corners were rounded off to give it a more caricatured nursery-like feel; the perfect romper room for George’s antics.

Although the title of the movie is Curious George, the plot hangs more on the activities of Ted (Will Ferrell), a curator of a failing museum run by Mr. Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke). Mr. Bloomsberry’s son Junior (David Cross) wants to tear down the place and put up a parking lot (to quote Joni Mitchell….I think) and Ted agrees to go to Africa in search of gigantic idol which will bring in the crowds and save the museum. Thanks to some unscrupulous clothing salesmen, he is sent on his trip in a bright yellow suit and hat, becoming the Man in the Yellow Hat that fans know. Of course, instead of finding the idol, Ted finds George, a child-like monkey who follows him back to the States.

The rest of the movie is a standard “let’s try to save the (whatever) before the greedy (developer, relative, government agency) ruins it or tears it down. George spends a good amount of time getting into trouble (of course) but ultimately he and Ted come together in a father-son, or father-monkey, relationship. Everything is very simple and straightforward but well done and fun to watch. There is also a romantic subplot involving Ted and Maggie (Drew Barrymore), a teacher who just wants Ted to get his eyes off the stupid fossils and monkeys and notice her!

One problem with the movie is how much of it is devoted to Ted and his rather well worn story. Despite being the title character, George is relegated to sidekick of the Man with the Yellow Hat, rather than the other way around. But in terms of voice work, look, and the general sweetness and fun, this movie succeeds as family entertainment. Jack Johnson adds a bevy of forgettable songs but their light, sweet melodies do match the overall tone of the movie. Not the most complete or creative animated film we’ve seen in awhile (or even this year), but something easy that goes down well. This is a DVD that could only appeal to a five year old. Literally. The majority of the bonus features are produced with pre-school kids in mind. One item that might have some interest for a grown-up or older child is the deleted scenes. The good news is that there are quite a few of them, fifteen in all, and a snippet from the actual movie is included on each end to show where the scene would have fit into the movie. The bad news is that like so many animated deleted scenes, they are cut out of the movie prior to completion. So while they have full vocal and music tracks, the animation is at best sketchy pencil drawings and sometimes even just storyboards. In cases where there are pencil drawings, not all of the characters are included on every cel, so they fade in and out as the scene unwinds. It can get a bit distracting.

The only other extra that might appeal to anyone who has completed the second grade is “A Very Curious Car.” It’s really a car commercial that goes down easy because they talk a bit about how the overall production design of the movie. This is the only real “behind-the-scenes” information about the look the creators went for in the Curious George world. They have to lie and say that the particular car driven by Ted was “perfect” and not just used because the car company gave them a boat load of money.

After you finish those two extras, it’s pretty slim pickings for those of us over the age six. All of the remaining segments are narrated by a female who sounds like a kindly mother or teacher, with no involvement from any of the voice cast or filmmakers. “Monkey Around With Words” introduces the kids to some big new words to pump up the vocabulary. Not wanting to dumb down the material, the filmmakers included words like hat and animal. You don’t even need to send kids to school with this type of entertainment based instruction. A group of “interactive” games are extremely simplistic. In one game, you have to count how many bananas you can see hidden in the picture on the screen. They are hidden only in the sense that you can see about 85% of the banana. Even for little kids, the games seem lame.

Two extras show very rudimentary animation basics. “Drawn to George” has the narrator explaining how anyone can draw George’s face. It is a nice to be able to pick up a blank piece of paper and in a few minutes see a well known animated character that you’ve drawn. “Monkey in Motion” shows how three simple drawings of George can show him pulling a hat down on his head. To quote a famous movie line….Nice, not thrilling, but nice.

The final extra is a music video for Jack Johnson’s song “Upside Down” which plays over the title of the movie. The video can be played with a sing-along feature. It doesn’t seem like the kind of song kids can sing-along with, but I find it kind of catchy .

It’s disappointing not to see some sort of “making-of” featurette, since the information in the car commercial that had to do with production design was very interesting. It’s also a shame that creators of the original Curious George books, H.A. Rey and Margaret Rey didn’t get any type of feature. I guess Universal felt that the only people interested in seeing this on DVD would be very small children. The quality of the movie makes this a marginal value and a good value for families with pre-schoolers, but next time throw the parents and older kids a bone, please.