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Curious George
Reviewed by Martin Thomas, © 2006

Format: Movie
By:   Matthew O'Callaghan (Director)
Genre:   Animation
Released:   February 10, 2006
Review Date:   February 16, 2006
Audience Rating:   G
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

Who among us didn't grow up reading and loving the adventures of that rascally, mischievous monkey, Curious George? Hard to believe it's taken all of 65 years from his inception to finally make it to the big screen. Of course, with Hollywood so quickly burning through natural resources (familiar licensed properties from the past), it was only a matter of time before this beloved primate came into his own.

I had hoped to open up my review of the Curious George movie with something controversial, just to grab everybody's attention. But then I read this from a recent column in the Wall Street Journal:

"Earnest literary types have interpreted the first book as a barely disguised slave narrative. Have you considered that the man's weird outfit could be a send-up of a colonial officer's uniform? Or that George is brown and lacks a tail? (Lots of monkeys are brown and most species have visible tails.) Or that he is abducted against his will from Africa and brought across the sea to a foreign land where he engages in high jinks when the master is away?."

Um . . . O-kaaaay.

Perhaps I never considered that because . . . it's retarded! Believe me, I'd love to sink my teeth into a theory like that if it had any merit. Sure, if you go back and read the first book, there is no mistaking the fact that the Man in the Yellow Hat is a big-ass poacher. And you don't have to be a member of PETA to be disturbed that he introduces George to liquor and tobacco and abandonment. But slavery? Seriously, who are these "earnest literary types"? Doctors Howard, Fine and Howard?

Rather than speculate on whether H.A. and Margaret Rey escaped the Nazis on a bicycle (true story) just to come to America and encode a treatise on slavery into children's literature, I'll instead turn my focus onto a more culpable villain. That exploiter and defiler of our childhoods: Ron Howard.

Is it because his heart was too small? His shoes too tight? Was it his own Truman Show-esque childhood, which forced us to literally watch him grow up on television?

Or was it the big dumptruck full of money they parked in front of his house that compelled him to make that How the Grinch Stole Christmas movie? Oh, excuse me. I meant DR. SUESS' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Y'ever notice how the more protracted the title becomes, the further it moves away from its subject? Even terms like "African-American" and "physically challenged" call attention to their own absurdity. This is especially true of movie titles that include the author's name, such as Grinch and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, which are so far hijacked from the author's original text you can't help but wonder if Ron Howard and Baz Luhrman weren't experimenting with actual seismographs connected to Dr. Seuss' and Shakespeare's graves.

It's been six years. Why can't I let go and move on? There rightly should be a statute of limitations, and I'm not above giving Ron Howard's his due for A Beautiful Mind. It's almost enough to forgive The Grinch's greatest crime:

Spawning Dr. Suess' The Cat in the Hat.

Cat in the Hat was succubus that left all who came in contact with it 21 grams emptier. Granted, Ron Howard didn't produce or direct it, but he damn sure kicked that unholy portal open, and Cat had The Grinch's stink all over it. "Carnage" to its "Venom."

And now, before we can even begin to heal from that offense, here he is again with the Curious George movie.

In addition to sharing shelf space in the same section of the library, what Curious George has in common with How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat is that they are quick reads and not very adaptable to full-length movies. Go back and compare those much beloved Dr. Suess cartoons from the '70s to the actual books, and you'll be amazed by how much they had to pad out the stories to stretch them to a 22-minute (without commercials) format. In trying to take them as far as 90-minute movies, those projects were doomed before they even started. Admittedly, the Curious George stories are slightly longer (the first one definitely was) but still worked best as read-alongs by Mr. Greenjeans on the Captain Kangaroo Show. Pretty hard to imagine this going the distance either.

So it's quite a shock that, despite everything stacked against it, this Curious George movie works just fine.

I would attribute much of it to the angle they took on the story: shifting the focus to a human character the audience could better identify with — Ted, the man in the yellow hat.

In the fashion of Batman Begins, we're treated to a detailed origin story of Ted, even down to exactly how he got his famous yellow hat and pimp suit. No longer a big-game poacher in this modern version, Ted (Will Ferrell) is a modest and earnest archaeologist and curator of a failing museum of natural history.

As much as the owner (Dick Van Dyke) would love to keep the museum open, he's being wooed by his jealous son (David Cross) to tear it down and build a parking lot instead. Until the old man, a former Indiana Jones-type himself, dispatches Ted on a mission to retrieve the gigantic, ancient monkey statue that had always eluded him. The idea being that such a find would bring back people to the museum in droves.

Yeah, okay, not the most coherent of plots, but it's a kid's movie, so what do you want? It does drive the story enough to get us to the jungle where Ted picks up the little, tail-less monkey, George. Except, in this friendlier update, George willingly follows Ted and stows away on board the ship back to New York. As you might imagine, the rest of the movie is a rollercoaster ride of shenanigans with George's curiosity getting him in and out of trouble and Museum Owner Jr.'s attempts to block Ted from saving the museum.

Besides numerous subtle sight gags that play well to the kids and adults, the biggest element that saves this movie from itself is the voice talent. Dick Van Dyke and David Cross make the most of their roles, and make you think they're in the movie a lot longer than they actually are. But it's Will Ferrell who pretty much carries the entire movie. He gives Ted a lot of heart and makes him a likeable underdog. Ferrell constantly slides in much of his own shtick, which gets annoying in his own movies but works perfectly here. He's genuinely funny throughout, but in the most understated way.

The key to a successful movie adaptation is never losing sight that what you're ultimately trying to end up with is a good movie, not a companion piece to the novel, comic book, or video game. To hell with adhering to the accuracies of all the minutiae! Yeah, yeah, so the Batmobile is really more of a Humvee, Wolverine is way too tall, and Spider-Man doesn't date Betty Brant first . . . so what?! None of that stops these from being great movies, because they all preserve the core of their source material and manage to tell compelling stories that fit within the rules and flow of the medium.

Similarly, Curious George isn't a page-by-page retelling but manages to pack in so many true Curious George moments. There's one scene in particular in which George enters an expensive New York apartment where the owner, a high-maintenance opera diva, is bathing after having just fired her decorators. What we have is a monkey, already infamous for his mischievous nature, in a sparkling white room with eight opened cans of paint. I swear to you, the sphincter of every adult sitting in that theater tightened just imagining the ensuing chaos. Plenty gasped, and more than half moaned audibly. The tension in the air was palpable, even the kids felt it.

Now, THAT, my friend, is what Curious George is all about!

Overall, the movie is pretty soft. A big deal is made of Jack Johnson performing all the songs for it. I suppose I'm too old and "out of it" to know who he is and why that means something. Truthfully, his music reminded of Kenny Loggins' self-serving Winnie the Pooh album.

As an animation buff (okay, "animation geek"), I wasn't thrilled with the animation either. Oh, the character designs are fine and the movement is smooth, I'm just not a fan of that style where everything is soft-edged and overly computer shaded. Reminds me too much of Space Jam, something that could never be construed as a compliment.

Still, it was better than a Froot Loops commercial — certainly less "in your face". What keeps me most fond of the movie, despite its mediocrities, is that it was never obnoxious. In today's climate of every commercial property getting louder and more outrageous in the fight for our attention, "not obnoxious" is a bigger compliment than it sounds like. Curious George is maybe more successful for what it doesn't do than what it does.

And one thing it doesn't do is draw a comparison to slavery and colonialism.

Good Lord!

RevSF contributor Martin Thomas has been commissioned to write a series of monkey spin-off books entitled Epicurious George, involving the fun-loving primate’s misadventures at a prestigious New Orleans cooking school, an upscale Japanese sushi bar, the National Gingerbread House Competition in Ashville, North Carolina, and, inevitably, his tragicomic demise at a fat-camp reality show competition.

 
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