It’s not just the animation that’s two-dimensional in “Curious George.” Rudimentary on every level, this long-gestating Universal pic based on the children’s character is pitched toward the youngest of kids — roughly ages zygote to 4 — with direct-to-video quality animation, plotting and backgrounds. Nothing wrong with that per se, except there’s zero here to divert adults, making its 86 minutes feel dangerously close to a hostage situation. The appetite for even mediocre G-rated fare suggests there’s a market for this (see “Chicken Little”), but “George” is much better suited to home viewing, allowing parents to seek refuge elsewhere.
Faced with a film replete with original songs by Jack Johnson featuring “Sesame Street”-style lyrics, even patient parents will likely be bored to death. (At the premiere screening, the host of a TV entertainment magazine show actually took a cellphone call during the movie, and he probably wasn’t alone.)
For those unfamiliar with the 1940s character created by Margret and H.A. Rey, the troublemaking monkey has received a few modern updates. For instance, there’s now an actual name for the little simian’s human pal (Ted) known strictly as “the man with the yellow hat” in the books.
The modestly constructed story has Ted (voiced by Will Ferrell) embarking on a jungle expedition to bring back a massive idol that will save the natural history museum where he’s employed. Barring such a coup for his employer, Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke), the site will be closed and transformed into a parking lot by Bloomsberry’s needy son Junior (David Cross, whose animated likeness is his spitting image).
So Ted heads to Africa, where he encounters a playful monkey who he eventually names George. As voiced by Frank Welker, the vocalizations are somewhere between a cooing baby and a poor chimp impersonation.
Stowing away in Ted’s ship, George follows him back to civilization, where Ted’s failure to find the sought-after artifact (thanks to sabotage by Junior) leaves the threat of closure dangling over the museum. Along the way, Ted receives support from Maggie (Drew Barrymore), a teacher whose frequent class trips have more to do with an interest in him than her students.
There’s not much more to it than that, with various chases through the city (one tethered to balloons) all set to those droning songs. And while the cartoonish renderings are in keeping with images of the well-known character, as directed by Matthew O’Callaghan, who cut his creative teeth at Disney, there’s simply no magic or sparkle in either the actual or asphalt jungles that George inhabits.
That said, the youngest of kids should be able to sit through the movie dutifully — especially at home, where at least they’re treated to lots of primary colors.