Children’s books today often feature illustrations so dazzling they’re works of art, but that only enhances my love for the magical simplicity of the Curious George books, which were first published in the 1940s. There was never anything fussy or extraneous about H.A. Rey’s drawings of George and his adventurous misbehavior. The eager rascal of a monkey — a stand-in, of course, for every last child who read the books — would dunk himself into a pot of spaghetti or paint a fancy New York living room to resemble his palm-treed jungle home, yet even as he acted like a very bad boy, the tone of the stories was open-eyed, gentle, curiously becalmed. The soft dabs of color told you that there was nothing all that wrong with what George was doing. Left to his own devices, he couldn’t help but get himself into a pickle; that’s what monkeys do. He was an angelic mischief-maker, and so the books had the effect of letting a kid feel especially good about being a kid.
Given the hellzapoppin’, media-zapped, ADD nature of so much contemporary animation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the new cartoon of Curious George, featuring the voice of Will Ferrell as the Man in the Yellow Hat, doesn’t veer all that far from the soothing tone of the books. This isn’t a high-tech kinetic update, like the Stuart Little films, engineered to occupy kids and adults at the same time. It’s truly a fairy tale for toddlers — and no one very much older. Set to a series of noodling musical numbers by Jack Johnson, a singer-songwriter so mild he makes James Taylor sound like Trent Reznor, Curious George is a sweet trifle, but maybe a little bit too sweet. George himself doesn’t speak, but he does coo, and he grins his adorable grin so much that the movie comes close to denying he’s any sort of troublemaker.
Will Ferrell, reduced to a voice, is more paternal, less hysterical than usual; he turns the Man in the Yellow Hat into an affably game science nerd, and Drew Barrymore, as the teacher who has a crush on him, flirts engagingly. There are a few contempo anachronisms, like the fact that the Man in the Yellow Hat has caller ID, not to mention a first name (it’s Ted). But I would have gladly overlooked them had his attempt to retrieve the Lost Shrine of Zagawa — a towering ape statue from Africa — carried even a glint of urgency. It’s George, of course, who screws everything up, and charmingly so when his King Kong-size reflection gets projected onto New York traffic, but Curious George ends up being a bit tame for megaplex monkey business.