I'll show you the monkey. By the time the marketing and branding campaign for the new "Curious George" movie has fully metastasized, you'll be begging for a few monkey-free moments, an occasional monkey-less vista, a day without a monkey. I say this, mind you, as someone who deeply, deeply loves the monkey. And who liked the movie too — which turns out to be as simple, friendly, kid-appropriate and nontoxic as any major motion picmerchtainment franchise could ever hope to be. Add to that the movie is hand-drawn and limited to just two dimensions — somebody please help me to a chair.
"Curious George" the movie is surprisingly faithful in look and feel to its source material, considering what usually happens, and especially considering the character has spent the last 16 years in development purgatory. As reported in an article that ran here Sunday, George has cycled through 42 writers, nine animation studios, I don't know how many directors and just about every trend in animation since Roger Rabbit was framed. Clearly, PETA was not kept abreast.
The big difference between this monkey and H.A. and Margret Rey's? He's now conspicuously eyeballed. Millions of dollars later, George's coal-lump peepers are now black and white, thanks very much, because studio executives believe eyeballs make him more "accessible" to children. Everybody's opinion is special.
The movie begins with George traipsing around in the jungle, getting into trouble, while folksy surfer Jack Johnson sings and strums in the background. I never got the appeal of Johnson, who composed 16 original songs for the movie. But in this context, I confess, I was with it. His music has the power to focus and calm the savage toddler. And having not-long-enough ago survived a nerve-obliterating Saturday morning screening of "Chicken Little," an anti-nap movie if ever there was one, I left the theater with a newfound respect for his talents.
In a nutshell, "Curious George" is an interspecies, cross-cultural love story that ends well. Will Ferrell plays the Man in the Yellow Hat, renamed "Ted" for reasons that remain mysterious. His banana-inspired fashion sense, on the other hand, is demystified in a funny shopping scene. Ted's cartoon love interest, a teacher named Maggie, plays Drew Barrymore, down to her errant lower lip. George, meanwhile, subliminally channels King Kong, the best-case-scenario version. (Were you to sit a hundred monkeys at an Avid station and let them splice together "Curious George" with "King Kong," you might end up with the simian version of "Mulholland Drive," the light and dark side of what happens to innocent jungle monkeys who brave the big, bad city.)
The story begins when Ted, a geeky docent, is informed by his boss Mr. Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke) that the museum is broke. Unless Ted can think of a solution, it will be torn down to make way for a parking structure, which Mr. Bloomsberry's jealous son Bloomsberry Jr. (David Cross) is only too eager to erect. So Ted goes off to Africa to find the Lost Shrine of Zagawa, and comes back instead with a tiny trinket and naughty monkey, who stowed away on the ship and survived thanks to the Dole® brand bananas in the cargo hold. This setback is overcome, naturally, by the end of the movie, at which point the museum is transformed into something resembling the Universal City Walk. This is an unwelcome jolt back to reality, especially if you, like me, actually happen to be at the Universal City Walk. But this is a minor moment, and the movie's only jarring one. With his new eyeballs, and his abiding love for Ted, George is considerably more anthropomorphized than before. And with his cuddly new name, the "Man" is likewise less creepily anonymous. Overall, the film version feels warmer than the books, stressing the monkey's amour fou for Ted, that yellow-headed heartbreaker. What it lacks somewhat is that brainy celebration of la différence (between man and monkey, of course) that gave the books a wilder edge, a feeling that despite their affection for one another, George and the Man were essentially strangers. Eyeball-less, and ignorant of his friend's name, George was a primal force that the Man in the Yellow Hat could never quite control. No wonder the new line of products to be sold at Kmart and Target will be modeled on the new-look George, while higher-end stores will stick with the old, literary monkey.
The old George was an irrepressible id, a reminder of the fragile equilibrium (not to mention polite distance) between nature and civilization. The new one is a future plush toy.
MPAA rating: G