"Curious George" stays true to its gentle beginnings.
I can't remember the last time I've had an experience of such overwhelming niceness. The makers of "Curious George" have figured out how to make an innocent cartoon that will amuse knee-nuzzlers without hitting adults like a liter of chloroform.
Adapting the gentle children's classics by H.A. Rey took a bit of doing. In virtually every outing, the good, inquisitive little chimp would cause a bit of mischief and be rescued by The Man in the Yellow Hat. The End. The stories captured the dynamics of an idealized parent and child relationship. Little George brings a messy but boundless delight to exploring the world. Yellow Hat tidies up after him, never spoils his fun, and in return enjoys a life that is a lot more interesting.
In terms of dramatic construction, the books are one step up from "Teletubbies," and turning George's antics into a yarn with intergenerational appeal is a tricky balancing act. The film adds a tad of structure, mild conflict and a smidge of romance.
The Man has a name now (Ted), a job (curator at the stuffy Bloomsberry Museum), and a voice (Will Ferrell). Ted meets George while leading an African expedition for a fabled idol. The statue is just the thing needed to turn around the museum's falling attendance. In fact, it's the only thing standing between the institution and the wrecker's ball.
The mission doesn't go as planned, however. Ted's main trophy from Africa is the friendly little ape, whose high jinks back in the big city complicate Ted's life. But he also helps save the day for the museum and brings his grownup pal closer to Maggie (Drew Barrymore), a fetching teacher who never misses one of Ted's lectures. There are smiles for the preschool crowd (George plays a mean game of peekaboo) and their parents and grandparents (an enlarging projector makes George appear Kong-sized as he travels through the town).
The animation, combining traditional cell painting and digital effects, is faithful to Rey's simple, loose watercolor illustrations. More important, the spirit of the stories remains intact. The only bothersome aspect of the production is the drab score by Jack Johnson, whose lullaby rhythms quickly grow blah. Otherwise, although its main character loves to make a mess, "Curious George" is pretty neat.
**½ out of four stars
The setup: Gentle monkeyshines from H.A. Rey's friendly little chimp.
What works: A charming story that is not too demanding, but not too simple.
What doesn't: Younger viewers won't understand the characters based on Drew Barrymore and David Cross; older ones may not care.