The world of kid's movies has been turned into a bit of a battlefield recently, as movie studios slug it out for their piece of the billion-dollar windfall of movie tickets and merchandise kids ask, cajole and flat-out beg their parents to get. The two weapons in the arsenal that studios seem to be turning to are either an escalating level of computer-generated imagery or jamming joke upon joke and gag into gag to fill their movie with cleverness and 'comedy.' For an example of the former strategy, see any Pixar film. For an example of the latter, see Hoodwinked. Or, rather, don't.
So it comes as a lovely surprise that the new animated adaptation of the decades-old Curious George kid's book series is neither a conspicuous demonstration of technical mastery (although it's quite well-made) or an overstuffed collection of gags that have come from a room full of writers (although it's quite funny). What makes Curious George such a gentle surprise is a sense of what I can only call "relaxed effort" – the feeling that everyone involved tried very hard to not seem like they were trying too hard. Originally published in 1941, Margaret and H. A. Rey's series of children's books about a little monkey and his friend, The Man in the Yellow Hat, endure in no small part thanks to their simplicity. The common threads in the books are bright and broad: simple line drawings; easily-identified characters; gently ambling plots as George's … inquisitiveness … gets him into adventures and low-intensity scrapes. Too often, the filmmaking technique for adapting classic kid-lit for the screen involves stretching brief pleasures past the breaking point to make them feature-film length. To me, that process is akin to welding Cadillac tailfins onto a butterfly: Yes, it's bigger. And you've killed it. (For a demonstration of this process in action, note that Ron Howard's How The Grinch Stole Christmas actually involves delving into The Grinch's psychological back story, a phrase that makes any reasonable person shudder with terror.)
But Curious George isn't like that; museum guide Ted (Will Ferrell) is trying to keep the museum he loves from being turned into a parking garage, and undertakes a mission to find a long-lost idol that could turn sagging admission revenues around. Ted's complete and total lack of archaeological training doesn't deter him; as voiced by Will Ferrell, Ted is an amiable, enthusiastic and thoughtfully goofy soul. Ted's idea of preparations for a treasure hunt starts and pretty much ends with buying a discounted bright yellow suit and matching hat because he's told it's what all the explorers are wearing.
While abroad, Ted meets a little monkey – a friendly, fun-loving, cute lil' guy who winds up coming back to America with Ted. If I can make a brief digression here -- and I think I can – I can only try to convey to you how much I appreciated director Matthew O'Callaghan's decision to leave George in a speechless state for this film. There's always a temptation with this kind of classic material to 'improve' or 'modernize' or 'innovate' and alter or remove the very things that make it what it is. George doesn't lack character, and he's an impressively expressive animated creation; at the same time, he is a monkey – and monkeys don't talk.
But Ferrell and the other voice actors do, and they deliver nice work. Drew Barrymore's thankless role as Maggie, a teacher with a crush on Ted, nonetheless has a real charm to it. Dick Van Dyke plays Ted's employer, Mr. Bloomsberry, and David Cross brings a certain amount of snap and pop as Bloomsberry's oft-overlooked son, Junior. However, it's Ferrell who shines brightest; after over-exposure in Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched and many other mis-fires last year, the idea of enjoying a Will Ferrell performance without having to actually see Will Ferrell perform is oddly appealing, and Ferrell coaxes an odd appeal out of his reading of the part – wide-eyed, optimistic, naïve-but-game, down but never out, occasionally frustrated by but never furious at George's antics.
It's not that Curious George is plotless, but rather that the film's token shrugs of narrative are easily ignored in favor of the cute episodic moments taken from the books: George makes a mess with some finger paints; George and Ted take to the skies buoyed by a bouquet of air balloons. Just as easily ignored are the songs by Jack Johnson that fill the movie; Johnson's stoner-surfer non-threatening-White-guy tunes should probably have a 'Do not operate heavy machinery' warning attached, as they're so coma-inducing you'd think that Claus Von Bulow was on drums. As animated films try harder and harder to get our attention and box office, Curious George's low-intensity affability and kid-friendly pace make it a surprisingly pleasant family film.