The thing I remember most about Curious George from the storybooks of my childhood was when he swallowed that jigsaw puzzle piece. Why would he swallow a piece of a jigsaw puzzle? Well, duh! How else are you supposed to know what a puzzle piece tastes like unless you eat it? And then George had to go to the hospital to have an X-ray, and he was scared, but the Man in the Yellow Hat was there with him, so he felt a little less scared in the end.
That bit is not in the new Curious George movie, but I am delighted beyond words that the movie does indeed capture that strange and wonderful state of a child’s psyche that comes about when intense inquisitiveness is encouraged and supported by parental love and attention and not too much scolding for perfectly normal mischief-making. Because of course George the monkey is a stand-in for all the not-actually-naughty children who are just indulging their need to fill their brains with all sorts of experiences, and the Man in the Yellow Hat is a stand-in for tolerant and understanding and loving parents who know the difference between shenanigans that are part of growing up and really are okay and those that need to be nipped in the bud.
It’s such a precarious time for little kids, when they’re learning to be creative and curious and concerned with all things outside themselves — and it comes at such a tender age. This Curious George is pretty much strictly for those little kids, which is fantastic: there’re so few films aimed at very young children that aren’t insipid or full of exactly the wrong kind of monkey business — there are, thankfully, no kicks to anyone’s crotch, no wisecracking tykes, none of the almost obscene nonsense that gets crammed into “family” movies these days. Which isn’t to say that parents or older siblings will be bored, either — it’s just that, thankfully, no one felt the need to throw in unnecessary double entendres for the adults or pratfalls for the teens. But this isn’t, say, Toy Story or Madagascar, either, isn’t one of those animated films that may not actually be inappropriate for the kiddies but isn’t really aimed at them, either. But if you loved George as a kid — and who didn’t? — there’s plenty to enjoy here even if you graduated from kindergarten way back in the 20th century.
And I was so dreading this film because I do love George: I fully expected the charming monkey and the kindly Man in the Yellow Hat to be altered beyond all recognition, turned into something horrifically snarky or postmodern or hip. Not that I’m not into snark and pomo and hip, but not for this: some stuff just deserves to be left alone to be sweet and square and wonderful. And George is simply adorable here, so full of warm hugs for the Man in the Yellow Hat (whom he follows home to the Big City from Africa — it’s not as complicated as it sounds), and he for the little monkey. Will Ferrell, who’s part of the problem with kids’ movies half the time (see Elf and Kicking & Screaming), is perfectly agreeable as the voice of the Man in the Yellow Hat, imbues him with just the right amount of gentleness, enthusiasm, and frustration with George.
Cuz he does get up to no good, that monkey. But it’s the brand of eager, passionate no good that comes from being engaged with the world and everything amazing in it. And that’s not such bad example for us all to follow, whether we’re 5 or 50.