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Curious George

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/11/06 19:04:46

"Another timeless classic gets turned into a cheap studio money grab."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

I’m sitting here looking at my daughter’s worn copy of H.A. Rey’s “Curious George,” and I’m wondering how anybody could possibly take this whimsical tale of wonder at its most purest and churn out a movie adaptation as unimaginative and uninspiring as the film I just watched.

Consider the book. Light, lovely, warm, sweet. And, of course, curious. We see the world through George’s eyes; yes, we know things that he does not (such as what a telephone does), but the innocence that we encounter when he investigates such new and peculiar things is so very, very magical. Even the man that comes to take care of George remains cloaked in mystery. He is merely the Man With the Big Yellow Hat, and that is all we need to know, because that is all that George needs to know.

Except, the Man With the Big Yellow Hat is named Ted, and he is a clumsy nerd who works not for the zoo but for a museum, and he bought his trademark yellow hat and suit by accident, and everyone makes fun of him for wearing such a thing, and there is a lovely teacher who has a crush on him, and the son of his boss is a vile little man with a pony tail who says things like “ka-ching.” This, it grieves me to report, is how the many, many staff writers hired to work on the screenplay envisioned this story.

Yes, this timeless children’s book has been reduced to a sloppy, cheap cartoon, one that actually dares to include not only a hip sense of irony and a winking self-awareness, two things that Rey’s books most certainly did not have, but crummy plot devices as a scheming villain (voiced by David Cross, who reads the role like he’s playing himself - all too smug for a project like this) and a kooky inventor (Eugene Levy) who pops up with a robot dog.

I repeat: the makers of “Curious George” have so little respect for the original book that they thought they should spice things up with a robot dog.

But then, that’s about par for the course when you take a look at the story they’ve whipped up. Instead of the simple story of a monkey’s adventures in the city, we get something about a loser named Ted (Will Ferrell, who also tosses in too much of his own wisecrackiness for the movie’s own good), who sets off to Africa to find a lost statue for his museum (which, if he doesn’t find it, will close down due to poor business). The shrine he finds instead is a two-inch-tall trinket, and when he returns home, he must find a way to deal with the publicity involving a 40-foot-tall “eighth wonder of the world.” The museum owner’s son (Cross), meanwhile, schemes to push Ted to admit his failure, so he can then demolish the museum and build a parking lot in its place.

You may have noticed one thing missing from that plot rundown: the title character. This is because “Curious George” is more about Ted than it is about the playful monkey (who, in this version of the story, is not captured by the Man With the Big Yellow Hat; instead, George merely follows him back to the city). Will George’s presence cause Ted to get kicked out of his no-pets apartment? Will Ted be able to tell the city the truth about the artifact? Will he find love with the teacher (Drew Barrymore)? George may get plenty of screen time here, but you could pretty much remove him from his own movie and you’d still get the same results.

The only major plot point that hinges on George has Ted trying to get rid of the mischievous monkey; when he does, and George is shipped back to Africa, a regretful Ted, realizing he’s just turned his back on his new best friend, races to find him. And you’re right - it all feels like an obligatory story maneuver created by studio hacks who aren’t comfortable with just letting George’s own playfulness lead us through the more plotless film we should have gotten. Somebody’s been following one of those annoying screenplay writing handbooks.

It’s a shame that we don’t get a playfully plotless film, because as presented here, George is in fact quite an enjoyable character who could have done so much with less restraints. The animators, led by director Matthew O’Callaghan, do an admirable job in bringing George to life, with great joy found in the monkey’s adorable reactions to everything around him. (Side note: the hand-drawn animation -a welcome reprieve from the overload of CGI we’ve gotten in the past few years - is quite stunning at times, the imagery often faithful to Rey’s original illustrations.) When the movie manages to find itself in a quieter moment (the opening jungle scene, or George’s arrival in the city), we can relax with something quite tender and lovely. (Vocal work from the invaluable voice-over legend Frank Welker adds to the charm, while folksy pop singer Jack Johnson’s original songs add a likable, bouncy touch.)

But then the filmmakers drop the ball. They give George a Spider-Man-like ability to swing and slide across town, an ability that’s ill-fitting with the character’s simpler style. They keep changing the tone of the film; a Looney Tunes-esque piece involving a nosy doorman seems to have been dropped in by a writer who didn’t bother to read the rest of the script. And, of course, they keep coming back to that pointless Ted plotline.

And that, in turn, leads us to a heavyhanded Message of the Movie moment at film’s end, in which Ted announces to all around him that learning isn’t about reading facts and figures in a book. It’s about experiencing life! This not only feels made up at the very last minute (“hey, we should probably have Ted say the message here, so we should probably think of one, and it should probably have to do with curiosity or something, considering the title”), but poorly thought out - I can imagine kids everywhere telling their moms that homework is unnecessary, because Ted says they can learn more if they can just go outside and play.

Ugh. “Ted.” I realize now with horror just how many times I’ve had to write that name because the character “The Man With the Big Yellow Hat,” as Rey created him, appears nowhere in this film. He is replaced, like so many other things here, by the most brainless product of a studio assembly line.

There is one thing, however, that eases my troubled mind: when my daughter is grown and has children of her own, there will still be Rey’s timeless masterpiece, and she can read them to my grandchildren at night, and the movie she saw so many years earlier will have long been forgotten.

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