'Curious George': Chimp and Chump

The film version of
The film version of "Curious George" has the innocence, but not the charm, of the books by Margret and H.A. Rey. (Universal Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006

The case of "Curious George" gets curiouser and curiouser. Right now, it's at its curiousest.

Originally created in 1940 by two German Jewish refugees from the Third Reich, Margret and H.A. Rey, the charming tales featured the monkey with a heart of gold and his owner in a suit of pale sunshine as they negotiated the modern world. The original book spawned six sequels by the Reys themselves, dozens more renditions by hired guns, including cartoons, lunchboxes, fast-food tie-ins, plush toys, breakfast cereals, software, themed iPods (well, almost certainly) and bedsheets.

And so the key curiosity is: How could one monkey make so much dough?

He made more dough than Kong and he didn't have to die in the end!

The answer is: innocence. If you can fake that, you can rake in the shekels and the yen and the rubles and the pounds and the francs and the lire the wide world over. That's how it goes: Hitler tries to kill the Reys and dies himself, along with most of his buddies and most of his country; all the Reys want is to get away and they conquer the world.

The new variant wisely plays up little George's classic attribute, his uninhibited, childish curiosity, as he gets into almost everything, and by the grace of a God who protects drunks, kids, the United States of America and monkeys, faces few consequences. For a while George the icon, a little furry ball of adorable cuteness uncontaminated by ego or greed or need or rage, is quite amusing.

But the movie wears out fast and gets thin even faster. I suppose its one newsworthy aspect is how non-newsworthy it is: It's the old kind of cartoon, or perhaps I should say it looks like the old kind of cartoon even if it was constructed on the new kind of machines (compu-something, I can never remember the word). But it seems to be drawn in the open, friendly style of Hans Rey, nuanced simplicity at the approximate level of a fine New Yorker cartoon. I actually prefer Rey's originals to the animation team (26 names listed) effort, which is a thicker version of them. Rey had a light, almost dancing line; he could get so much into just a feathery filigree, where the 26 drones labor mightily and manage only to make the lines heavier, the backgrounds denser, the colors more screamingly primary.

Mrs. Rey wrote the books (but it was a very labor-intensive collaboration; witness the fact they managed only six more books in the more than 30 years left them) and she herself boasted a stylistic lightness of line -- the prose was supple, poetic, incisive. That lightness is nowhere in this version, which was written by Ken Kaufman (auteur of that laff riot "The Missing") from a story by Kaufman and Mike Werb. It's pretty elementary.

What's more amusing -- at least to my recondite tastes -- is the odd pattern of political adjustments and non-adjustments in the treatment. Kaufman and Werb go to great lengths to bring certain things up to date and utterly miss other things.

They're eager to join the general cultural war on men, of course. To the Reys, the man with the yellow hat, as he was known (parse for Freudian meanings at your own risk!) was also The Man. He fixed stuff. George, the little chimp he'd purloined from Africa, continually brought the world to the edge of chaos and catastrophe, and then The Man fixed it. It was okay, and he went off with George in his yellow pocket.

This Man, voiced by the high-pitched pipsqueaky pipes of Will Ferrell, is a complete goof. He's a jerk. He's given a name -- Ted -- which immediately dilutes his mythic grandeur; he's given a back story (he's a museum guide); and his yellow suit is a measure not of his imperturbability and macho pride but of his gullibility, as he's swindled into buying it by sharpies.

He's not even capable enough to swipe George. In this version, the George-Man relationship has been rewired so that it's George who decides to go with him, not the other way around.

So that's modern, straight out of the ad mills of Madison Avenue -- guy as klutz. Also modern: cell phones, which figure prominently in keeping the somewhat out-of-control plot in some kind of trim, as well as providing the prime wrinkle, when someone mistakes a phone pic of a 4-inch artifact as a 40-foot artifact.

But here's what not modern: the idea of the museum as treasure house of Third World loot. How '20s is that! That's the heavily armed Roy Chapman Andrews in his armored Packard and phalanxes of mercenaries roaring Afrika Korps style across the Gobi desert in search of dinosaur eggs, pausing even to name a dinosaur after himself!

The plot -- I was hoping to skip it but see now that it's got to be mentioned -- involves poor, dim Ted being dispatched to Africa to come up with an "attraction" so fabulous it will save the clearly for-profit Bloomsberry Museum from extinction. Of course, being an idiot, he comes back with something that fits in his pocket, but old man Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke) misinterprets that phone-photo and thinks it's immense. Thus he spends a fortune setting up something very much like Carl Denham's Kong exhibition -- except Ted's Kong could fit in a Cracker Jack box.

The salient point, however, isn't the failure of the exhibit, but the utter sense of entitlement by which it is mounted (as is a later exhibit, which saves the joint). The movie's unconsidered view of the museum is hopelessly anachronistic: It's where you show off the stuff you've stolen.

Oh, there's a fine lesson for the kids. If it's pretty and sparkly, steal it from the natives! They don't appreciate it. You're entitled.

Anyhow, the movie is otherwise really bland; the animation feels about on the level of Saturday mornings on the Cartoon Network, and the colors are so bright, I advise sunglasses.

Curious George (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G and contains no offensive imagery.

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