George, the curious little monkey, had a precarious start: his parents, Margaret and H.A. Rey, bicycled out of Paris just hours before the Germans arrived, with the preliminary watercolors and story text in their backpacks. Margaret, a Bauhaus-trained artist, was a sharp cookie and blazingly direct, capable of blurting to her publisher: “You always wear a hat. Is there something wrong with your head?” (The reply was, “Nothing that a hat can hide.”) Hans was the gentle one, and the whimsy of his watercolor portraits of George comes across even through the color-separation process used in printing the books. The first “Curious George” book appeared in America in 1941 (in England he was called “Zozo,” because the monarch was named George. And, well, “curious” was a euphemism for “gay.”) Since then the books have never been out of print, a rare achievement in the genre, where few survive ten years. Generations of children have been delighted by reading about this mischievous little monkey. Will the movie be able to do the same?
Those who love the books will be immediately jolted by the way George has been re-imagined. He doesn’t look quite like the book’s George; he’s rounder, chubbier, and in general resembles a human toddler. In some scenes, for exampling when cuddling or tearful, the attempt to use this resemblance to tug on heartstrings is obvious. You’ll get used to it, but it’s startling at first, and entrenched fans of George may feel resentful; movie images tend to erase print ones. Look at what happened to Winnie the Pooh. It seems that Hollywood will leave no childhood tome unturned, and if you prefer to read kidlit and make up your own movies in your head, you’re fast running out of resources. From now on, this will be the “real” George.(Three cheers, at least, for making this movie in traditional, hand-drawn, 2-D animation. A 3-D George would have been unnerving.)
Another change, this one more positive: there’s a real plot here, and it’s a pretty good one. The books are a series of scrapes and adventures, rather than well-rounded stories. The movie draws artfully on a number of vignettes in the books, and binds them together into a tale that even adults will find pretty watchable. Yet even the youngest children can enjoy it; suspense doesn’t have to mean scary. The sound track is by rising star Jack Johnson, and it offers many gentle songs that all sound alike to me, but they’re agreeable and (thank goodness) non-saccharine. It’s a movie that all ages will watch, rewatch, and enjoy.
The film’s not at its best in the opening sequences, however. We see George playing with his jungle pals, and it’s cute, but not what you’d call original. Then we see Ted (yes, the Man with the Yellow Hat now has a name, and he’s well voiced by Will Ferrell) getting tangled in a workplace dilemma, and it’s likewise less than fresh. He works in a museum, see, but the diorama-and-lecture style of presentation no longer attracts crowds. Mr. Bloomsberry (Dick van Dyke) sadly plans to close the museum. Instead, Ted rekindles Mr. Bloomsberry’s ancient enthusiasm for exploration, and is assigned to go to Africa and bring home the fabled Shrine of Zagawa, in hopes of reviving the museum’s fortunes.
About here things begin to pick up, with appealing sequences both from the book and newly minted. Take, for example, the scene when Ted goes to a store to get clothing and equipment for his jungle sojourn. Two Italian-American garment salesmen are griping about having to dispose of a lot of yellow suits. When Ted walks in they snap on hearty Australian outback accents and swiftly get him outfitted in one, assuring him that yellow is “the new khaki.”
When Ted first meets George, the attempt to present the chimp as childlike is so obvious that the two even begin with a game of peek-a-boo. But it’s when the duo return stateside that the movie really takes off. In the book, the Man with the Big Yellow Hat tricks and captures George, which would no doubt be upsetting to contemporary audiences. Here, George forms such an attachment to Ted that he voluntarily follows him back to the ship, then all the way home. We accompany George as he leaps over rooftops, following Ted on the street. This is the first of several passages that are truly visually beguiling.
But some parts are a bit overdone, and extra characters have been invented and crammed into the story for no discernible reason. A schoolteacher, Maggie (Drew Barrymore), has a crush on Ted, but she only appears briefly and only says the obvious. Mr. Bloomsberry has an odious son, Junior (David Cross), but the plot could have gotten along without him. The nutty inventor, Clovis (Eugene Levy), is not too securely embedded either.
There’s a lovely scene in Curious George Takes a Job, where George goes into a lady’s apartment and paints the walls, causing his usual havoc. She’s barely glimpsed in the book, but here she gets a lot of screen time, though again she has no purpose in the plot. Miss Plushbottom (voiced by Joan Plowright), is short, plump, and autocratic, with a helmet of black hair, and strongly echoes the character in The Incredibles who was such an unexpectedly big hit, Edna Mole. These characters don’t exactly impede the film, but you wonder how they got in there. Is it all about cramming roles into a screenplay that are big enough to attract stars to voice them, who are likewise big enough to attract audiences? Chekov would be frustrated by the quantity of guns that never go off.
The most significant departure from the books has to do with the ultimate message, though, and it’s a real sign of the times. In the books, George’s curiosity leads to fun, but often, also to trouble; sometimes it’s serious trouble. Reading about him allowed children to imagine wild adventures, but also learn lessons about safety. It’s fun when he’s swept up into the air with a kite, “But when George looked down, the fun was gone….Not even a monkey can jump from the sky. George was scared. What if he never got back? Maybe he would fly on and on and on. Oh, he would never, never be so curious again.” George is repeatedly described as sad, frightened, very unhappy, and scared at the consequences of his curiosity. “If only he had not been too curious he could have had a lot of fun. Now it was too late.” “All the fun was gone. He had been a bad little monkey. Why was he so curious?” “Oh, he would never, never be so curious again.”
In the books, George learns a lesson. In the movie, it’s the Man with the Yellow Hat who learns the lesson: he learns that it is a good thing to be curious. The reason the museum was failing was due to its old, pedantic style. Now, everything is participatory. The bones of the museum’s dinosaur skeleton are scattered in a sandbox for children to dig up. As Ted announces, “Anyone can learn facts and figures. The real way to learn anything is to go out and live it, and let experience lead you.”
Sixty years ago, the world was still a pretty dangerous place for children; a warning to be cautious in following your curiosity was a necessity, a life-saver. Today’s sheltered kids need to be exhorted to switch off the TV and try some actual reality for a change. It’s not a bad start to sit under a tree with a good, old book.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.