Friday, February 10, 2006

Curious George (O'Callaghan, 2006)

There is a scene in Curious George in which the mischievous monkey finds his way into a rocket ship and inadvertently sends it into orbit. At this point, all the Man with the Yellow Hat can do is strap himself in and enjoy the ride. This a pretty accurate metaphor for what parenthood feels like. The spirit of play and discovery is so strong in young children that it can often be overwhelming. I’ve never raised a monkey, but I imagine that it can’t be too terribly different. It is delightful to find such a poignant moment in Curious George, because, to be perfectly honest, the books from which the film is adapted are a terrible bore. I know, because I’ve read them … over and over and over again. They contain language that is mundane, situations that are utterly predictable and little to no educational value. The Man with the Yellow Hat has to be one of the most irresponsible owners in the history of the world, disappearing for long stretches of time while George gets himself into peril. And there’s always been an uncomfortable subtext with the way that George is snatched from his home in Africa and dragged across the ocean against his will just because ‘safari guy’ thinks he’s nifty.

The film version actually makes several improvements to the source material, resulting in a film that may not be revolutionary, but certainly is rather entertaining. Rather than being abducted, George stows away on the ship taking the Man with the Yellow Hat home because he is not yet done playing peek-a-boo. Automatically, this shifts the balance of the relationship so that there is more of a connection between the two. The Man (named Ted in this version for reasons of practicality) has his own dramatic throughline involving a museum in financial trouble and a requisite love interest that is sweet without being too distracting. George thus becomes a comic foil, providing constant distraction due to his persistent, but innocent, exploration. In casting Will Ferrell as Ted and David Cross as the weaselly curator’s son, the filmmakers add just the right does of hipness without exploding into Dreamworks-style pop culture references and Jenny Jones slang. Songs by Jack Johnson provide emotional support without becoming pandering and syrupy. You’ve probably seen many animated films that are funnier, but Curious George does have its fair share of genuinely humorous moments. Most importantly, the humor is pure, supporting the story and characters, rather than undercutting them with innuendo and excessive sophistication. The film is drawn mostly in bold, primary colors and delivers a simple message about the value of curiosity without ever lapsing into sermonizing.

Curious George is a film that will do a very good job appealing to its target audience: precocious pre-schoolers and those whose love allows them to see through their eyes. Will it have a broad appeal outside of those two categories? Probably not. But then again, who cares? It would have been easy to phone this film in and coast on name recognition. Instead, the filmmakers have gone beyond the call of duty and delivered a film that is full of wide-eyed optimism and is also consistently entertaining.



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