That Curious George existed at all — much less as a franchise, an icon enduring some 65 years — was a result of “happy circumstance,” wrote Houghton Mifflin publisher Anita Silvey with some understatement in 1991, upon the fiftieth anniversary publication of The Complete Adventures of Curious George. Silvey and critic Leonard Marcus recall the tales of the monkey’s parents, Hans Augusto Rey and his Bauhaus-trained wife Margret, German Jews who fled Paris on bikes in June 1940, just as the Nazis were storming the city. With them, the Reys carried precious few things, Marcus writes, chief among them “watercolors and a draft of the as-yet-unpublished Curious George. ” When the book arrived in US bookstores in August 1941, it was hardly a best-seller; Silvey says that four years later, the first Curious George title moved “negative-six copies.”
Yet still he remains, a seller of knock-off books and stuffed animals to two-year-olds and a peddler of smirking joke T-shirts to giggling potheads. That it took this long for George to swing from pulp jungle to shiny screen is unfathomable. It couldn’t have cost that many bananas, given the traditional 2-D animation, which already makes this brand-new thing look quaint before its time. Save for some stop-motion shorts that lift their stories directly from the Rey-written sequels, and some Captain Kangaroo readings, the monkey’s absence suggested a reverence reserved for, say, the unfilmed and unfilmable Holden Caulfield and not some cutie-pie primate who became, in Marcus’ estimation, “the bright standard-bearer for the universal curiosity of children: their large-as-life need to touch and tangle with the world and to learn by doing, even if to do so means occasionally landing in thickets of trouble.”
There is no need for concern among the purists and fetishists who’ve raised their kids, and their kids’ kids, and so on, on Rey’s stories. Certainly, Curious George‘s lineage was not promising: The film boasts a cast of screenwriters who range from official scribes Ken Kaufman and Mike Werb to a bunch of uncredited sitcom folks. But from that potentially noxious brew comes a palatable, even occasionally fizzy concoction kids will gulp up and their folks won’t choke on (too loudly, anyway). Though even more adorable than his print predecessor — which is to say, more expressive with his furled brow and button nose — this monkey saw what that monkey did and mimics artfully.
Here, then, are snippets of classic stories: George painting a white bedroom in palm-tree greens and leopardskin yellows while slathering zebra stripes onto plain chairs; George scaling a high-rise like a miniature King Kong; George soaring over Manhattan with a handful of helium-filled balloons; George playing peekaboo with the Man in the Yellow Hat’s conical covering. The writers chose a few set pieces to borrow, but none of the stories; George doesn’t have surgery to extract a puzzle piece or learn to ride a bike, slim stories that, alas, still possess more narrative than this movie. Yet those looking for subtext — or even the occasional pop-culture gag — can peek elsewhere, to movies like Hoodwinked and Shrek. This is kiddie lit made for kiddies, as substantial as those thin paperbacks Houghton Mifflin has been cranking out for decades, which is precisely the point. I know one two-year-old who thought it the best thing ever; presumably, he’s the demo, and I’m just the wallet and car keys.
The story couldn’t be more mundane: The owner of a natural science museum (voiced by Dick Van Dyke) will be forced to let his scheming son (David Cross) turn the joint into a parking lot unless museum anthropologist Ted (Will Ferrell, doing a toned-down Ron Burgundy) returns from Africa with a forty-foot-tall idol reputed to possess magic powers. (Ted, of course, is the Man in the Yellow Hat; according to the cast of writers, he came about his outfit only after being duped by a clothing-store salesman, a real letdown.) Of course, Ted can’t find the idol, but does bring back with him a monkey he reluctantly befriends and names George. The museum is about to go under, Ted loses his job and apartment, gets a girlfriend (Drew Barrymore), blah blah blah … and then everything works out okay, the end. Just like reading a bedtime story; in the near future and forever after, this movie will probably wind up as post-dinnertime viewing in many, many houses.
The best thing you can say for Curious George is that it’s decidedly old-fashioned (or timeless, choose your backhanded compliment): It looks like it was made in 1958. Or 1969. Or 1974. And though it does cheapen itself with some dreadful moments of product placement, it doesn’t instantly date itself with cheap pop-culture gags. It will play to our kids’ kids tomorrow just as it does today, like something made for children who don’t know to expect more from their cartoons than just pleasant, nostalgic mediocrities.