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Friday, February 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Curious George": Filmmakers monkeyed around with beloved children's book

Special to The Seattle Times

Perhaps it was the way Hans Augusto (H.A.) Rey delivered his first "Curious George" manuscript and watercolor illustrations to safety — exiting Paris just before the Nazi occupation of that city, making his way to the United States — that made the classic children's book so captivating without being sentimental.

In that book, called "Curious George," the iconic Man in the Yellow Hat, about whom we know little, travels to Africa, captures George and carts him off to America, where he's destined to join a zoo. The irrepressible George gains what can only be called the Man's arm's-length, eccentric affection, and seems to have the run of the whole world, much like most preschoolers dream of having.

I like to think young readers love George not only because he causes havoc by accidentally calling the fire department or attempting to fly but because Rey playfully stokes a child's love of the surreal. (George smokes a pipe, eats at a table and even escapes a maximum-security prison.) The story is enduringly adorable because curious, freedom-loving kids can relate to George in a goofy-comic way. And, again, there's that refreshing lack of sentimentality.

Movie review 2 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Curious George," with vocal performances by Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, Dick Van Dyke, Joan Plowright, Eugene Levy. Directed by Matthew O'Callaghan, screenplay by Ken Kaufman from a story by Kaufman and Mike Werb, based on a book by H.A. Rey. 77 minutes. Rated G. Several theaters.

By contrast, the hand-drawn animation adaptation of "Curious George" is molasses-sweet, plot-heavy and pandering. The film is one long, reductive parallel between impish George's relationship with an anxious human father figure and the relationship between any active toddler and a weary parent.

In many ways, the film — produced by Ron Howard's company, Imagine Entertainment — feels like a rehash of themes played out in the Howard-directed ensemble comedy "Parenthood." In that 1989 hit, moms and dads, like most in the real world, drown in chaos and endless sacrifice, but at the end of the day they know it's worth it.

Such is the too-obvious lesson for a retooled Man in the Yellow Hat in the film version of "Curious George." The character now has a name, Ted, and a voice supplied by comic actor Will Ferrell. He's no longer an adult who does interesting (if undefinable) things in Rey's books but a boring curator at a failed museum and a nebbish who can't figure out that a pretty schoolteacher (Drew Barrymore) has a crush on him.

Ted needs to get his act together and feel more alive, which means (in the emotional shorthand of today's family movies) he needs to love somebody, which means George. The mischievous monkey (a chimp, actually) stows away on a ship carrying Ted home from Africa. (All that traumatic zoo stuff is gone for today's youngsters.) The two bond like father and son, and while the scrapes Ted gets into because of George are plentiful (he's ousted from his apartment and job, among other things), his attachment to the little guy makes him realize he's a Better Person.

Was this really the way to go with a feature version of "Curious George?"

Sure, young children sitting around me laughed and gasped at times. This movie's for kids, anyway, so that's great. But somehow I feel "Curious George" has been cheated of its essence, of the classic story's slightly more challenging pleasures and an inquisitive little hero's truly childlike point of view in a world of wonders.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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