(2001), H.A. Rey
For those who grew up with the books, there is very good news. The film Curious George is lovingly faithful to the original children’s books by Margaret and H.A. Rey. Many years in development, the final product is a signature 2D, traditional (non-cgi) animation which recreates the original look. The 2D animation style may take a little adjusting to, but contributes to the film’s vision. Curious George is very unlike nearly any other family film of current vintage in other ways as well. Indeed, the simplicity, or rather the simple joyful quality of this film never lets the audience down.
A mischievous, yet endearing young monkey from Africa comes to have many adventures with The Man in the Yellow Hat, a young-dad kind of guy, an American also known as Ted. George, as the monkey will come to be known, is a bundle of inquisitive energy, constantly and mirthfully getting into one scrape or another. Typical of most any 3- or 4-year-old, George is possessed of, and represents, the pure innocence of human childhood that charms every loving parent. Like most real monkeys, George cannot speak in human language, but empathic, kindly Ted is able to verbalize for both of them. This is the essence of the storybook characters beloved by generations since the Reys published the original Curious George book in 1941.
The Man in the Yellow Hat is voiced by Will Ferrell, who lends a particular, gentle humor to Ted’s animated character. Whatever a reader’s expectations may have been, this Ted makes perfect sense for the animated Curious George. Ferrell is neither demented or mock-inflammatory,as Robin Williams can be, nor slick and knowingly clever in that adult kind of way that Pixar and Disney Studio’s animated characters often are.
The film opens with an adventurous and creative, unnamed young monkey enjoying a typical day of play in the African jungle. Clearly the jungle represents the suburban family backyard; jungle and backyard both serve as stand-in for the rich fantasy world of a young child’s imagination. This quick introduction to George’s preverbal world is executed with a playful sense of humor. George comes across bananas, balloons, and pots of paints in bright colors, rendered in one charming skit after another, lending the film a delightful silent-era-film visual quality.
After the initial set-up, the story crosscuts to the primary narrative. Over in America Ted is working in a failing museum. His passion–for science and history, for teaching, for working with kids, for museum work, for helping others–is all signaled quickly and sweetly in a few scenes. The director-owner of the museum has tremendous faith in Ted, far more than in his own son, who wants to tear down the museum and build a parking garage which will make far more money. Ted and his boss hit upon a scheme for Ted to go to Africa, discover a magnificent carved, ruby-red idol, believed to be forty feet tall, and bring it back for display (a kind of kiddy version of King Kong). The publicity will help them raise money to save the museum and to bring prestige and interest back to it. The audience learns how, in preparing for his African safari, Ted came to be fitted up in a yellow wardrobe ("yellow is the new khaki"), which explains his now trademark yellow hat.
Matthew O’Callaghan uses this silly plot structure to bring George to America, and Ted into George’s life. Two story lines ("an innocent child at play" meets "hyping an archaeological find to save art from death at the hands of commercial interests") converge to bring George and Ted together for the first time and let their relationship blossom on screen. The film is also very yellow much of the time. The biggest buzz about mellow, yellow Curious George is the soundtrack by rising star, mellow singer-songwriter Jack Johnson. This is a perfect film for young children and fans of young children. Nostalgia buffs and the more ambitious movie-goer may dig a bit deeper for some of the serious subtextual commentary on cultural values, or just get mellow and get down on a rainy Sunday afternoon.