Parents of preschoolers, rejoice! Thanks to a 65-year-old chimpanzee, you can take your toddlers to the multiplex and not worry that they will emerge without their innocence intact.
"Curious George" is the missing link between Baby Einstein videos and the smart-alecky, innuendo-laden television cartoons many kids have memorized long before kindergarten graduation. George is one of the last characters from children's literature to move from page to screen, and fans of all ages will think it worth the wait. The film pays loving homage to the spunky simian that Margret and H.A. Rey introduced to the world in 1941. The filmmakers, including producer Ron Howard, have created a true G-rated film, one that updates a classic character without adding any of the edginess, double entendres or snarky one-liners that are de rigeur in most family films these days.
In both plot and production design, "Curious George" is a throwback to a simpler time. For more discerning viewers -- adults, for example -- the story line might be just a little too simple. Writers Ken Kaufman and Mike Werb didn't exactly dip into M. Night Shyamalan's bag of stunning plot twists when creating their story about the adventures of George and the Man with the Yellow Hat.
Instead, we have shy and bumbling museum tour guide Ted (Will Farrell) donning head-to-toe yellow for a trip to Africa, where he hopes to find the lost shrine of Zagawa, which he and museum owner Mr. Bloomsbury (Dick Van Dyke) hope will prevent the museum's closing. Presumably, no preschoolers will quibble about the implausibility that (a) a museum could have a single owner; and (b) same failing museum has enough cash to mount an African expedition.
While in the jungle, Ted encounters a mischievous monkey, who uses Ted's hat for a rousing game of peek-a-boo. When Ted finds what he thinks is the shrine and it ends up being a trinket no bigger than a keychain, he heads back to his New York-bound steamer, but not before the precocious chimp who charmed him in the jungle stows away in a cargo hold loaded with dozens of crates of Dole bananas. Presumably the kids won't notice that blatant product placement, either.
The cast is rounded out with a jealous museum heir (David Cross), a vengeful doorman (Ed O'Ross) and a lovestruck romantic interest (Drew Barrymore), all of whom are far less interesting than the rascally George, but who serve the necessary purpose of propelling the plot along in between those sequences in which the movie excels -- those featuring George himself.
George doesn't deliver a single line in the movie, and yet he is unquestionably the star. The beloved monkey is impeccably realized; in movement, gesture and facial expression, he conveys the inner workings of an impish and curious mind.
The contrived and somewhat dimwitted plot is completely overshadowed by the movie's enchanting animation. Hewing as closely to the look of the "Curious George" books as possible, the animators eschewed CGI, 3-D and other state-of-the-art technologies and created a pretty, 2-D film that despite its simplicity still has a decent "gee-whiz" factor. Scenes of George finger painting in the jungle and in the apartment of snooty Mrs. Plushbottom (Joan Plowright), as well as a scene in which George and Ted float over the city on a fistful of helium balloons, are especially lovely.
Although the film does not incorporate any specific story lines from the seven "Curious George" books (his bicycle and those newspapers are conspicuously absent, for example), and although parts of the film may be too elemental for sophisticated viewers, the character of George never fails to captivate.
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: The voices of Will Farrell, Drew Barrymore, Dick Van Dyke and Eugene Levy
DIRECTOR: Matthew O' Callaghan
RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes
THE LOWDOWN: A mischievous monkey gets into many adventures in the Big City.