Hans Agusto Rey and his wife, Margaret, were German Jews who escaped Paris by home-made bicycle hours before the Nazi tanks rolled in. In their knapsack was the manuscript for a children’s book they had written together called Curious George . Though the Reys wrote other children’s’ books, and though the couple has since died, it’s George who is in his seventh decade and still causing trouble.
Curious George is now an animated movie. A pretty good one, too, if you’re three and four, like my kids. I observed closely as my little target audience watched the film. They know the books backwards and forwards; part of their delight was that great joy of kid-dom, recognizing characters they know. (May they never learn there’s a place called DisneyLand.)
But the core of George’s appeal for little people is that he’s just like a furry three-year-old human monkey. He is fascinated by everything; he wants to touch things, to fiddle with them, to fit things inside of other things and see what happens. No button must go un-pushed. Turn your back on a three-year-old for three seconds, and he’ll jam a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into the VCR and paint the dog blue.
Due to the criminal negligence of the Man in the Yellow Hat, George has the adventures of a regular Candide. (Some of these adventures need a little modernizing; you won’t see him smoking a pipe or being thrown into prison.) Luckily, George inhabits a movie world that looks like every corner has been monkey-proofed. Everything has soft edges, from the puffy trees to the rounded bumpers on the New York taxi cabs. There is only one moment, when George goes sailing through the skyscraper canyons clutching a bunch of balloons, and starts to fall, that he is in serious peril; for three-year-olds in the audience, this is high anxiety. But the firm hand of the Man in the Yellow Hat is, as always, there to receive him.
When I think of men in yellow suits, I think of the M. Emmet Walsh’s psychotic Texan in Blood Simple , or the Yellow Man in Blue Velvet . The average three-year-old will not have these associations. Unfortunately, the Man in the Yellow Hat, called Ted in the movie, is not just banal, he’s downright grating. Whenever he’s on screen and George is not, it’s dead air for kids and adults alike. I struggled to pinpoint Ted’s brand of stupid, nerdy blathering, eventually comparing it to the worst writing on Saturday Night Live. Later, I was not shocked to learn that Ted is played by Will Farrell. His fans tell me I have to see Elf and Old School . I keep failing to force myself.
The hand-drawn characters are composited into backgrounds rendered by computer graphics. It’s nice to see gentle cel animation in our age of empty, spastic CG. But if you see Curious George, and if you know Disney’s Aladdin, compare the airbrushed blues, the curved geometry, the egg-on-toothpicks body and grizzled expressions of the old man, and the quizzical look of the cute teacher. It looks to me like somebody got into somebody else’s art supplies.
Curious George is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.