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Curious George   B

Universal Pictures / Imagine Entertainment

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: G
Director: Matthew O'Callaghan
Writer: Ken Kaufman (based on the books by Margret and H.A. Rey)
Cast: Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, David Cross, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, Dick Van Dyke, Frank Welker.

Review by Rob Vaux

The challenge of bringing Curious George to the screen has defied the best writers in the industry. It has taken 14 years and God knows how many concept changes to arrive at the final product, and the crass marketing campaign surrounding it suggests that the beloved monkey of the title has been co-opted as a corporate shill. What a surprise, then, that the movie turns out to be a modest delight. Not only does it understand what makes the books such classics, but it successfully reinterprets them for the big screen without losing the soul of its source material.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the monkey himself -- a child-like being of warmth and happiness whose namesake trait celebrates both the joys of discovery and the mayhem to which it can lead. The books (by H.R. Rey and his wife Margret) followed George as he accompanied the Man in the Yellow Hat from the jungle to the big city, where all sorts of rollicking misadventures awaited. Rey's illustrations perfectly captured the character's innocence and charm, but in the wrong hands, that adorable little simian could easily become an irritating pest. Director Matthew O'Callaghan is far from the wrong hands, however, and the film's version of George -- while shifting slightly from the books -- is as effortlessly appealing as anyone could hope for. He radiates nothing but guileless lovability, his troublemaking curiosity fostered by only the best intentions. Before the opening credits are finished, he has walked off with the audience's heart in his pocket.

It doesn't hurt that the powers that be wisely decided to eschew CGI animation and render Curious George in classic 2-D style. It's a laudable choice, for not only does it stand out from the current glut of computer images, but the bright palate (dominated by gorgeous primary colors) does a wonderful job of evoking the magic of Rey's deceptively spartan drawings. The sight of George soaring over the cityscape with a bunch of helium-filled balloons, or redecorating the local dowager's unpainted living room in a jungle motif smoothly marries the heart of Rey's work with the awesome visual potential of filmmaking.

Some of the movie's changes are less gentle, however. The books, with their slight structure and haiku-like simplicity, could not hope to support an 80-minute film. In response, the screenwriters have created a serviceable but thoroughly pedestrian plot about a quest to find a giant jungle idol in order to save the museum where Man in the Yellow Hat (here named "Ted") works as a guide. O'Callaghan wisely uses it to pace George's various escapades (which keeps them from descending into a chaotic mess), but its routine developments lend comparatively little support to the proceedings.

Similarly, the Man in the Yellow Hat has changed from the Reys' benign paternal figure to a well-meaning boob voiced by Will Ferrell. It works within the context of the film -- Ferrell retains the character's essential decency while liberally mixing it with various exasperated straight-man shticks -- but purists will miss the subtle parent-child relationship that was a cornerstone of the books. The change to the character shifts the action from a more overtly familial structure to that of a buddy movie. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but given how well Curious George acknowledges other aspects of its source, it still feels like a setback.

Other, more problematic issues arise as well. The script's attempts to give Ted a love life with a besotted school teacher (Drew Barrymore) feel out of place, and while a bevy of supporting figures -- a mad scientist (Eugene Levy), an aged adventurer (Dick Van Dyke), an imposing doorman (Ed O'Ross) with a strict "no monkeys in my building" policy -- make interesting turns, all of them feel culled from other movies rather than an integral part of this one.

George, however, serves as very strong unifying force, elevating even the more hackneyed elements beyond what they may have achieved in other projects. Curious George always keeps his spirit front and center, allowing it to color every aspect of the film rather than diluting it to fit the passing needs of contemporary fad. Children will identify with George's innocent sense of exploration. Parents will identify with the larger-than-life consequences of his mischief. And fans of the book -- whatever their age -- will be relieved to know that his big heart and irresistible fun have found a good home on the big screen.

Review published 02.09.2006.

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