CURIOUS GEORGE — ** 1/2 — Animated feature starring the voices of Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, Dick Van Dyke and others; rated G (nothing offensive).
The tagline alone for "Curious George" — "Show Me the Monkey!"— is enough to make you cringe with dread.
Oh, no, you're thinking. Not again. They took a classic children's story and crammed it with pop-culture jokes and self-referential humor like so many recent animated films, simply to appeal to the adults in the audience.
Thankfully, they didn't.
"Curious George" remains very much within its own candy-colored universe and stays true to the lighthearted spirit of the beloved books by Margret and H.A. Rey. No "Jerry Maguire" jokes within the movie itself, but there are a couple of riffs on "King Kong," which are actually relevant and very funny.
The film is ideal for the same audience the books target (kids ages 4-8), which may make it tedious at times for the parents sitting alongside them.
George is buddies with all the baby elephants and zebras and rhinos, whom he pals around with in his African jungle home at the movie's start, accompanied by one of many overly simplistic and ingratiating songs by the ever-mellow Jack Johnson.
Later he engages New York museum curator Ted (voiced by Will Ferrell) — you know, the dude in the yellow hat — in one of many playful games of peek-a-boo, bouncing and cooing the whole way through, before eagerly sneaking onto a ship and following Ted home.
There's something sort of refreshing, though, about its simplicity and innocence. Director Matthew O'Callaghan and screenwriter Ken Kaufman haven't tried to create a film that's hip, just one that's funny and sweet, and in that sense they've succeeded.
Plus, George is just so darn cute with his big eyes and bright smile and perpetually sunny disposition, he's pretty much impossible to resist. For kids, he also represents the ultimate in wish fulfillment: He gets to make a mess of the bathroom by unrolling toilet paper all over the place, he splashes a rainbow of paint across the white walls of a pristine apartment — and he never gets in trouble!
Ted is always there to bail him out — until he's finally had enough of George's impish antics and angrily sends him away, which is surprisingly moving, as is their inevitable reunion. (Come on, guys, it's a children's movie. We're not giving away any big secrets here.)
Ironically, Ferrell is less animated doing the voice of an animated character than he is playing actual people in movies like "Elf" and "The Producers," but he's just as likable when he tones it down.
The rest of the vocal cast is similarly solid, including Drew Barrymore as a teacher whose crush on Ted inspires her to repeatedly drag her students to the museum; Dick Van Dyke as the museum owner who sends Ted to Africa looking for the lost idol of the Zagawa tribe; and David Cross (whose character looks just like, well, David Cross) as the jealous son who sabotages Ted's trip.
None of his monkeying around, though, can stop Curious George from saving the day.
"Curious George" is rated G. Running time: 77 minutes.