Curious George opens with the sight of the titular primate gazing at his own reflection in a pond, an apt inaugural image considering that 60 years’ worth of children have seen their own inquisitive, mischievous inclinations mirrored in the antics of the impish monkey. For the most part, those young and old fans of the classic children’s books will find much to enjoy about Matthew O’Callaghan’s sprightly adaptation, which languished in development stasis for more than a decade because of debates about which animation approach would best suit the material, an issue finally settled by the decision to employ a traditional two-dimensional style with subtle flourishes of CGI. Such a choice turns out to have been prudent, as O’Callaghan’s primary-colored adventure has a plush, almost-edible vibrancy that remains largely faithful to the aesthetic template set forth by creators H.A. and Margaret Rey.
The same also holds true about its amiably simplistic story, which follows the exploits of museum tour guide Ted, a.k.a. The Man in the Yellow Hat (voiced by Will Ferrell with a bit too much of his trademark absurdity), as he travels to Africa in search of a legendary idol that will help prevent his workplace from being turned into a parking lot, only to return home empty-handed—save for George. The resulting hijinks involving the rascally, imitative George treating Manhattan like his own jungle gym are as soft and cuddly as they come, with paternal Ted extricating his childish pet monkey from mishaps involving paint, balloons, and a bubble bath (no trips to the hospital, though). Thrown in for bland measure are an un-menacing villain (David Cross), a love interest for Ted (Drew Barrymore), a predictable King Kong allusion, and—in yet another example of repugnant kid’s entertainment advertising—some odious Volkswagen product placements.
Still, most of the focus is on harmless pratfalls and the non-stop adorability of George, the latter of which seems to be thoroughly on-target if the young girl sitting behind me at the press screening (“He’s so cute!” she enthused) is any indication. Even with reinforcement from Jack Johnson’s sweetly encouraging score, the film’s guiding principle—that “The real way to learn anything is to go out and experience it”—turns out to be quite a thin lesson on which to hang a full-length feature. But when contrasted with the hyperactive, cacophonous aggressiveness of a Shrek or Shark Tale, Curious George‘s steadfast modesty is a trait worth quietly celebrating.