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Curious George (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 10 February 2006
The “Curious George” books by Margret and H.A. Rey, World War II refugees, began publication in the late 1940s; they soon became, and remain, popular world-wide, though perhaps less so in the U.S. than elsewhere. The charming, simple books tell of monkey George (who has no tail) and his friend/owner, the Man in the Yellow Hat. As the title suggests, George’s endless curiosity gets him into one fix after another, from which he’s usually extricated by The Man in the Yellow Hat.

The story of how these books became a feature film prompted a lengthy Los Angeles Times article outlining the picture’s 18-year journey to the screen. Along the way, it acquired writers (as different as William Goldman and Brad “The Incredibles” Bird), directors and filming techniques. Initially, it was to be an animated cartoon, then live action and cartoon, then live action and CGI, then all CGI; someone dimwit even toyed with the idea of a man in a monkey suit.

The final film is in TV-quality cartoon animation, and has a kind of second-hand aura, as if the film was being released only because there was nothing else to do with it. Some early reviews have been negative, even excoriating, but I found it entertaining and charmin. It’s child-like—and children below 12 will be the most appreciative audience. Yarrow Cheney’s colorful production design has a storybook simplicity, with a fresh-feeling, vivid color palette. Each figure is distinctly outlined in a lighter color, making them stand out from the background. Somehow, the choice of color and the simplicity of design make the screen seem to glow, as though it were a source of light instead of merely reflecting it. Computer graphic animation is occasionally and judiciously used, as when George drifts over Manhattan, suspected by a cloud of colorful toy balloons. Animating so many balloons that shift position so much could have driving a cartoon animator bonkers.

After all the scripts that Universal and other potential producers worked through, it’s a little surprising that the story is so uncomplicated, though it does stack up enough obstacles to George and the Man in the Yellow Hat (Will Ferrell), here called Ted, that the climax has to be wrapped up very quickly.

We meet George in Africa, evidently the only monkey in this part of the forest. George, who speaks only in simian squeaks and grunts (courtesy of hard-working Frank Welker) is a happy, relaxed creature. He discovers he can make hand prints on blank cliffs, and decorates everything in sight, including all the other young animals. This doesn’t sit well with their more dignified parents.
Meanwhile back in New York, Ted bores a school tour with his anthropologist patter; he doesn’t realize that he’s impressing their teacher, Maggie (Drew Barrymore). Later, he’s told by his fatherly boss, Mr. Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke), that due to falling attendance, he’s going to have to close the museum. His all-business son Junior (David Chase) is eagerly looking forward to putting up a parking lot. Isn’t “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot” a rather moth-eaten concern this day and age?

Ted eagerly suggests that he follow Bloomsberry’s map to find a forty-foot statue, the Lost Shrine of Zangara. Installing it in the museum will save the day. Yes, that’s very likely; consider how many museums are overcrowded with people trying to get a look at granite statues of monkeys. Well, the plot had to hinge on something.

Tricked by clerks at an outfitter store (they shift from talking like Sopranos extras to thick Aussie accents) into wearing yellow safari clothes—“yellow is the new khaki,” they declare—Ted heads off to Africa. Naturally, he encounters the as yet unnamed George, who’s delighted with Ted and entranced by his banana-colored hat. The monkey likes to play peek-a-boo.

Due to Junior’s sabotaging the map, Ted finds the wrong statue—this one is a little figurine, three inches high—and dejectedly returns to New York. George scampers aboard the ship and hides in the hold on a carton of Dole (so labeled) bananas. Of course, once in New York, hijinks ensue.

There are complications with the unexpectedly Russian-accented doorman at Ted’s building, who kicks Ted out when he realizes he now has a pet monkey. And there are more with bulgy little Miss Plushbottom, an upstairs neighbor who, of course, has chosen this day to have eight cans of colorful paint sitting around her apartment for redecorations. George does most of the redecorating.

The very simple nature of the story and the design of the film will be obstacles for many adults; the story slows down and gets talky around the third act, when children might get restive—they did at the preview. I wonder who made the decision to provide the film with practically wall-to-wall songs, written and sung by Jack Johnson? They’re all very much like, Johnson’s voice is whispery, and what lyrics you catch aren’t interesting. Instead of being a benefit to the film, the style and content of these songs are liabilities.

The script doesn’t provide a lot of characterization for anyone other than the doorman and Bloomsberry’s fussbudget son; Ted is just Nice Guy, Maggie is just Nice Girl, and Bloomsberry a standard-issue nice old coot.

And yet the film is largely charming, mostly entertaining, thanks to George himself. Director Matthew O’Callaghan keeps George interesting and funny, with a very clear and very engaging personality. Real monkeys should be so sweet and endearing; George’s perpetual buoyancy carries the film. Usually likeable characters all too quickly become uninteresting, even dull; consider the evolution of Mickey Mouse over the years, and why finally Donald Duck’s cartoons were far more entertaining. The Mouse was too much of a nice guy, while Donald was pompous, self-important and had a volcanic temper. George is much more like Mickey than Donald but his, yes, curiosity saves the day. He never intends any harm, he’s just fascinated by whatever comes along next. And is delighted to investigate the possibilities. Children eight and under will adore him.

The rest of us—well, “Curious George” is certainly not as bad as some reviewers are already claiming, but it’s not as good as the long-lasting series of books would seem to suggest. After almost two decades of development, the movie will have a hard time turning a profit in theatrical release, but it will sell on home video forever.

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