Cel-animated 'Curious George' gets curiouser

There’s something curious going on.

Last year Hollywood declared traditional animation dead, replaced instead by toons created inside a computer.

Fueled by the B.O. of Pixar’s computer-generated pics as well as “Shrek” and “Ice Age,” Disney and DreamWorks dropped plans to produce any hand-drawn pics in the near future. The same is true at Fox and Sony.

But Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer haven’t given up on cels just yet. In fact, the two companies are in the middle of readying a hand-drawn “Curious George” for November 2005.

Jean-Marie Messier, Vivendi Universal’s reflexively blue-skying former chairman, envisioned the precocious monkey as the company’s Mickey Mouse, adorning everything from water bottles to the studio’s letterhead.

The news now is not George’s corporate role, but that he will finally come to life in a traditionally animated (or “2-D”) adaptation after spending 60 years as a literary icon. That aesthetic, the filmmakers believe, suits the classic children’s book series about a mischievous young monkey who is adopted by the Man in the Yellow Hat.

Hollywood will soon find out whether U and Imagine’s bet will pay off. “George’s” budget is said to hover around $40 million. That’s midrange for an animated film but cheap by traditional animation standards due to a staff that is 60% outsourced animators.

Several toon players are also watching the project — including Pixar, which has toyed with 2-D concepts — to see if it will signal a comeback for the style.

Series of seven original books and later new adventures, by H.A. and Margret Rey, became a staple in school libraries and children’s bedrooms since the first book was published in 1941. More than 25 million copies have been sold.

Grazer says he first began developing the project more than a decade ago, securing rights from John Shapiro and David Kirschner, who are also producers on the project.

“I personally had it forever because I loved ‘Curious George,’ ” Grazer says. “I collect children’s books. In my library I have almost 1,000 children’s books.”

U acquired additional rights to “Curious George” from Houghton Mifflin, a one-time publishing affiliate of the studio under Vivendi Universal. Acquisition predated Viv U’s later acquisition and eventual resale of the publisher.

U saw no reason to abandon the film after Messier’s departure, and it had been looking for another animated film for some time. Its last was 1995′s “Balto.” “The project (Curious George) was acquired and in development long before Messier arrived, and a good project is a good project,” says Mary Parent, U’s co-vice chairman of worldwide production.

U and Imagine had originally contemplated adapting the books into a live-action feature with a computer-generated monkey, opting later to make it as an animated film — entirely CG, with Industrial Light & Magic tackling the project as its first toon.

But that plan proved too costly, with the budget double the pic’s current pricetag.

CGI can help rein in production costs on animated films, but that’s when a production pipeline has been built and the spiraling salaries of a studio’s animators can be contained.

A 3-D “George” wouldn’t have worked anyway, producers say, citing early tests. George just didn’t look right.

“He looked kinda creepy,” says Bonne Radford, a former producer at DreamWorks and Amblin’s animation units, who now serves as the lead producer on “Curious George.”

Grazer notes that all sorts of approaches were considered including puppetry.

“I think we finally have the right approach, and we got incredibly lucky getting Will (Ferrell),” who will voice the Man in the Yellow Hat.

2-D gives the project “kind of a retro vibe,” observes Howard, who thought Disney’s “Brother Bear” was a “real solid” movie and rejects the notion that 2-D is dead.

“Looks and approaches don’t go away, they just become one of the options,” he muses. “This is driven by the character, just as ‘The Grinch’ was driven by the character. We weren’t driven by the medium.”

And Parent observes that “2-D is the truest representation of the character in the book. 2-D is a great way to preserve the look, the style.” Illustrations in the books were mostly drawn with watercolors, making 2-D appealing.

Naturally, “Curious George” will help U push new lines of merchandising featuring the titular monkey. Studio already has created a Curious George Goes to Town attraction at its Universal Studios Florida theme park.

U and Imagine have also struck a deal with PBS affiliate WGBH to develop an animated kidshow based on “Curious George.” Louis Feola, prexy of Universal Worldwide Home Entertainment (which produced nine straight-to-video sequels to “The Land Before Time”), is supervising the venture for U.

Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run”), Joe Stillman (the two “Shreks”), Michael McCullers (the “Austin Powers” sequels) and Daniel Gerson and Rob Baird (“Monsters, Inc.”) penned the script. Jun Falkenstein (“The Tigger Movie”) is helming.

The filmmakers plan on staying faithful to the books, with the pic’s script “inspired by” previously published yarns — titles like “Curious George Rides a Bike,” “… Flies a Kite,” “… Gets a Medal” and “… Goes to the Hospital.”

The original story will emphasize contemporary plot points with “edgy” humor, Radford says, while sidestepping the “not exactly PC” aspects found in the “George” books (George was kidnapped from the jungle and later put in a zoo.).

Despite some changes, the Man continues to wear a yellow hat, and George still gets himself into everyday adventures without the ability to speak.

“I just love the spirit of the ‘George’ character,” Howard says. “The thematic center of the books is a constant celebration of a child’s curiosity. It also reminds all of us how much is gained when one’s curiosity is fulfilled and followed.”

The challenge will be to show “the real nature of the relationship with that Man in the Yellow Hat, filling in the blanks in a way that’s engaging,” Howard says.

George’s not talking is also a challenge, “but it’s also what makes him a great character,” Howard says. “Harpo Marx didn’t say a word. And John Belushi hardly spoke in ‘Animal House.’ “

Pre-production on “Curious George” started a year ago, with a staff of 75 animators taking up an entire floor of a Universal City high-rise near the studio lot. Fourteen-hour days have already become the norm for the crew, which is starting the animation phase.

Some 60% of the key animation work will be outsourced to companies around the globe, while the majority of the character animation will be handled by the team at U.

Once the film is completed, U may keep the animation arm up and running and its staff (many of whom come from other animation studios, including DreamWorks and Disney) on the payroll to work on other projects if the right property comes along.

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