You can say several things in favor of "Curious George," a mild off-season cinematic bid for the young and the restless. The movie, a G-rated, 86-minute affair, isn't glib or assaultive in the "Shrek" vein, though Joe Stillman, a "Shrek" alum, is one among many uncredited screenwriters on this project. Jack Johnson's songs slide in one ear and out the other.
Filmed primarily in traditional two-dimensional animation, though without much wit or distinction, director Matthew O'Callaghan's feature at least doesn't emit the sort of antiseptic visual chill you get from many computer-animated jobs. "Curious George" stays relatively faithful to the style of the original and delightful H.A. Rey illustrations. (The first "Curious George" book, written by Rey's wife Margret, came out in 1941.) You do, however, notice whenever the computers take over, in aerial perspectives and chase sequences and the like. You feel like you're being nudged into a different movie.
If these virtues sound passive, it's because the movie is passive, not to mention overplotted and mis focused. Its makers should've heeded their own poster tagline, which is "Show me the monkey!" It is not "Show me the man in the yellow hat!"
Will Ferrell provides the voice of the man in the yellow hat, which explains why the man in the yellow hat dominates so much of "Curious George." Ferrell's fun in the right setting--for reasons I can't defend, a lot of "Anchorman" cracked me up--but judging from this project, voiceover artistry isn't one of his strong suits. The same goes for Drew Barrymore, the voice of schoolteacher Maggie, the nominal love interest. Her role in the story is to stand around making enormous goo-goo peepers at our hero, who resembles Dennis the Menace's father without the specs.
The yellow-hatted man here has a name: Ted. The credited screenwriter, Ken Kaufman, fleshes and then stretches out a tiresome narrative in which Ted, a yakky, accident-prone museum guide, is sent to Africa by museum boss Mr. Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke, the best of a bland vocal cast). Desperate for a blockbuster exhibit and apparently unable to book "Body Worlds," Bloomsberry believes the key to his museum's survival is to find and fetch the lost shrine of Zagawa. The shrine turns out to be less impressive than advertised. But George, who stows away on the ship back to America, saves the day. Was there really any question?
George's first scene is his best: He and Ted get to know each other by way of a peek-a-boo hat routine. This scene hews closely to the source material, and it works, and maybe there's a lesson there. Back in New York, the script's jokes are tougher to find than the shrine. And while "Curious George" takes place in the present, there's something strange about seeing juice boxes and fancy cell phones show up in the Reys' visual universe.
To put it in context: This film is better than either of Imagine Entertainment's live-action Dr. Seuss projects, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" or "The Cat in the Hat." There's eh, and there's sub-eh.
Directed by Matthew O'Callaghan; screenplay by Ken Kaufman, based on the books by Margret and H.A. Rey; production design by Yarrow Cheney; music by Heitor Pereira; original songs by Jack Johnson; edited by Julie Rogers; produced by Ron Howard, David Kirschner and Jon Shapiro. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:26. MPAA rating: G (all ages admitted)
Ted, the Man in the Yellow Hat - Will Ferrell
Maggie - Drew Barrymore
Junior - David Cross
Clovis - Eugene Levy
Miss Plushbottom - Joan Plowright
Mr. Bloomsberry - Dick Van DykeCopyright © 2015, CT Now