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Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle! The makers of Curious George, the new animated film based on the classic children’s books by H.A. Rey, have pulled it off. Unlike so many similar efforts, it enhanced, rather than spoiled, my memories of those funny, colorful books first published in 1941 and still immensely popular today.
Directed by Matthew O’Callahan, from a script by Robert Baird, Dan Gerson, and others, Curious George is the story of a monkey whose aim in life is to learn all he can about the world while hanging a “kick me” sign on it. As with the original character, George’s curiosity is always getting him into trouble. He’s playful, in a two year old child sort of way, living according to a few basic principles. If it’s closed, open it. If it’s rolled-up, unroll it. If it floats or flies, catch it, and, if it can possibly fit, put it in your mouth. Most important, if it can get you in trouble, then by all means, DO IT.
The film starts out in a big-city museum owned by Mr. Bloomsberry (voiced by Dick Van Dyke), a jovial, elderly retired explorer who’s shaped like a potato on toothpicks and wears a ponytail. Lecturing to a group of bored and restless kids is curator Ted, an earnest, somewhat nebbishy guy who, for good reason, sounds like Will Ferrell with an occasional touch of Woody Allen. Gazing admiringly at Ted as the kids clamor for lunch (it’s nine A.M.!) is their pretty, demure teacher Maggie (Drew Barrymore), who brings the kids to be talked at every Thursday. But that is soon to end. The museum is losing money, and Mr. Bloomsberry’s equally pony-tailed, meanie bean-counter son (David Cross), wants to tear down the museum and build a parking lot. Dad Bloomsberry can't bear the idea and decides to send Ted on an expedition to Africa to find an ancient artifact, the lost shrine of Zagawa, which includes a giant idol that will form the centerpiece of a new exhibit that will restore the museum's finances.
Ted heads to a tropical-clothing store run by fake Aussies from Brooklyn and is persuaded to buy a yellow outfit, complete with ten-gallon hat. "Yellow is the new khaki", goes the sales pitch. Yellow becomes a running gag in the film, which is not surprising since the Ted character in the books is dressed all in yellow and is referred to only as "the man with the yellow hat".
Before Ted leaves on his expedition, Bloomsberry Jr. monkeys with the map leading to the shrine, and the net result is that what Ted finds is a tiny replica of the idol instead of the actual thing. Sort of like what happened with Stonehenge in This is Spinal Tap. In the process, he meets and befriends George. Mr. Bloomsbury thinks that Ted has the actual idol, gets the museum set up for an exhibition to showcase it, and calls Ted home. Naturally, there's trouble.
Central to the film is the meeting between Ted and George, and their resulting relationship. In the book, Ted captures George in the jungle and brings him home. Here, no doubt to soften things up a bit, George follows Ted of his own accord, stowing away on the ship carrying him back to the USA. The film's creators have decided to make this much more of a buddy story. In the books, the man with the yellow hat usually appears at the beginning, George is left to his own devices, screws up royally, and the man bails him out in the end. George usually learns something from his experiences, or becomes an accidental hero in the process and redeems himself. The relationship remains vague.
George's personality and spirit have been successfully transposed to film, although the movie George is cuter and more baby-like. He explores his world with wonderment and enthusiasm, a playful, cuddly, and totally uninhibited bundle of id who provides a counterpoint to Ted's uptightness. The film is at its best when George draws Ted completely into his world and their relationship appears very much like father and son.
Although the plot is pedestrian at times, and, towards the end, strays into Jimmy Neutron territory, the hand-drawn animation, the lack of CGI, and the use of primary colors recreate quite faithfully the feel of the books. Jack Johnson's original music is a delight.
Curious George is a film that children will find delightful. George, himself a child, doesn't say a word, but his playful nature and his naughtiness wrapped in innocence make him accessible and readily understood. As for me, a semi-adult, the film left me with a strong urge to buy a few pots of varicolored paint and head for the nearest clean white surface.