Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: (voices) Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, David Cross, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, Dick Van Dyke, Frank Welker
Written by: Ken Kaufman, Mike Werb, based on the stories by Margaret and H.A. Rey
Directed by: Matthew O'Callaghan
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 97
Date: 02/10/2006
IMDB

Curious George (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

This Monkey Shines

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some of the world's most beloved children's books can be read aloud in under fifteen minutes. That's nice at bedtime, but not so nice for screenwriters charged with adapting these same stories into feature-length films.

Producer Brian Grazer tried it with two of the most famous and beloved Dr. Seuss books, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat and wound up with two of the most reprehensible and insulting films of recent years (2000 and 2003, respectively). How did he pad them out? With excessive special effects, vulgar new jokes and brain-dead backstories and subplots.

So kudos are in order for the creators of the new Curious George movie, based upon the books by H.A. Rey. Of course, they have used the standard-issue Hollywood screenplay format to expand the story into a three-act "conflict" and "resolution" template, but they have done so with a genuine humor and sweetness that will leave children happy and adults feeling good.

The books are rather light in the plot area, and simply tell tales of George the monkey getting himself into trouble, and The Man with the Yellow Hat getting angry and finally forgiving him. The new film begins with the predictable "origin" story, explaining how these two get together, but also -- and far funnier -- explaining the origin of the yellow suit and hat.

The Man with the Yellow Hat, known here as Ted (voiced by Will Ferrell) works for a museum on the verge of closing its doors due to a dry cash flow. His boss, Mr. Bloomsberry (voiced by Dick Van Dyke) wishes to keep the place open, but Bloomsberry's grown son, Junior (voiced by David Cross), wants to demolish it and build a parking lot.

Junior nearly has dad convinced until Ted reminds Mr. Bloomsberry of a way out: they can go to Africa and retrieve the giant monkey shrine of Zagawa for their next exhibit. Mr. Bloomsberry immediately dispatches Ted, but not before Junior sabotages his map.

In the jungle, the monkey soon to be known as George (voiced by Frank Welker) snatches Ted's yellow hat and engages him in a rousing game of peek-a-boo. George apparently lives by himself in the jungle and plays with animals of different species; thus he has no real friends or family to leave behind and complicate matters.

Distractions aside, Ted only manages to find a three-inch idol, rather than the forty-footer he expected, and goes home in failure. Unbeknownst to him, George follows.

When George arrives in New York, the movie shows off a lovely bit of animation, combining 3-D computer-generated backdrops with smooth, hand-drawn character animation. George tries to follow Ted in a yellow cab, swinging from flagpoles and fire escapes as the landscape swirls about him.

Needless to say, George causes no end of trouble for Ted but also begins to help just when the chips have fallen to their lowest. George also helps break the ice between Ted and a pretty teacher, Maggie (voiced by Drew Barrymore), who loves to drag her class to Ted's boring museum lectures.

Every so often, the movie rolls out a song by Jack Johnson, a much-played favorite on our local radio station KFOG. Johnson's songs provide the same mood that Carly Simon's did on Pooh's Heffalump Movie (2005). For some tastes they can be cozy and mellow, but for other tastes, they're boring and very nearly coma-inducing. However, they tend to work in Curious George, keeping with a kind of happy, innocent vibe. If the film had employed any of a number of caterwauling "American Idol"-type soundtrack hits, it would have raised some serious hackles.

Likewise, the hand-drawn animation provides a certain comfort from frame one. Yes, the characters have that trendy, big-eyed Disney/anime look about them, but for die-hard fans the film pays homage to the original illustrations with its inventive closing credit sequence.

The filmmakers continue to respect their handiwork by avoiding the expected fart jokes, kicked-in-the-crotch jokes and other gross-out, bodily fluid references. In one scene, George cracks open a gourd of some sort, revealing a gooey red paste, but rather than joking about it, he actually begins painting with it.

Curious George is also smart enough to let Will Ferrell riff. His strength as a performer lies in channeling a kind of childish innocence, as he did so brilliantly in Elf (2003), and so his casting could not have been more perfect. Likewise Drew Barrymore, whose bell-clear voice made Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999) a Christmas neo-classic on television, delivers an earthy sweetness that is sometimes missing from her live-action roles.

But the real star of the show is the unsung voice of George, Frank Welker, a veteran specialized voice actor with over 500 credits listed on imdb.com, including Fred in "Scooby-Doo," plus various shrieks and noises heard in the Gremlins, Star Trek and Harry Potter movies.

Though he doesn't rank a credit listing with his more famous co-stars, his work, plus the darling animation, turns George into an appealing little imp; we quickly forgive him his trespasses.

But when, in one scene, Animal Care and Control cages him up and hauls him away, Welker's cries of protest and sorrow can break the most hardened heart.

George's sadness doesn't last long, however, and audiences can take comfort in his joy. Curious George the movie sidesteps the mistakes made by the Seuss films and winds up as delightful and as reassuring as the bedtime stories it tries to emulate.

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