Universal/Imagine Entertainment (2009), Universal Studios Home Entertainment (March 2 2010), single disc, 80 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated G, Retail: $19.98
The Man With The Yellow Hat and his adorable monkey Curious George return to the feature-length format for another adventure, as they set out on the road to bring a lovable baby elephant back to her family.
The Sweatbox Review:
With Disney’s The Princess And The Frog making the big waves for the return of hand-drawn animation to the big screen, it’s easy to overlook the fact that others had been keeping the traditional animation torch alive, from the 101 Dalmatians Xerography of The Triplets Of Belleville and Disney’s own sequel-churning Toon Studios (producing, as a result, at least three or four titles of their own merits), and – somewhat oddly – Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment, who entered into an agreement with Universal to produce a feature based on Margret and HA Rey’s series of books about a mischievous little monkey and the man who befriends him and gives him a home.
Until this point, Universal’s commitment to animation had resulted in a pretty spotty track record, abandoning cartoon shorts after Walter Lantz’ Woody Woodpecker and friends shut up shop, and only dipping a toe in the waters via their association with Steven Spielberg, who produced Don Bluth’s An American Tail and The Land Before Time pictures and launched the Amblimation studio that only amounted to a handful of releases. Even the big Disney renaissance of the 1990s, during which it seemed almost every other studio attempted to grab some of the animation market, didn’t get Universal jumping in with both feet, and it’s only really been the emergence of CGI recently that has gotten them excited – and even that’s usually only through their independent label Focus Features.
It’s true that Universal had been all too happy to churn out cookie-cutter “sequels” to The Land Before Time over and over again, perhaps being more accusable of Disney themselves for developing the “cheapquel” market – but arguably kick-starting the Studio’s current interest in theatrical feature animation was the first Curious George movie, which was brought to them by Imagine, the company otherwise known for producing adult dramatic fare such as Apollo 13, Ransom, the Da Vinci Code films and television’s intense 24. With Howard in a supervisory capacity, and perhaps enticed by the talent involved (a then-still hot Will Ferrell and Drew Barrymore provided voices alongside such a stalwart as Dick Van Dyke) and the brand recognition of the characters, Universal threw their promotional weight behind George’s conversion to the screen, and the result, released in 2006, was an extremely charming, high quality feature.
It was designed for younger audiences, for sure, but the quality animation – from a host of then unemployed traditional Disney artists including those from the Project Firefly facility started up after the demise of Disney Animation Florida, James Baxter Animation and numerous individuals all hungry for work – made it something for hand drawn fans to look out for. The gentle tone, surprisingly amusing script, spirited but not annoying vocal talents and solid cartooning led to a very sweet film which reminded me a lot of the original Winnie The Pooh featurettes (even the otherwise clunking product placement for Volkswagen cars can be begrudgingly overlooked for the way they integrated the design into George’s world).
The film led to an ongoing animated series for George on the PBS Kids channel, which reverted more towards the look of the Reys’ original books and for its content, and the development of a sequel, once destined for a 2009 theatrical release just like the first film, but ultimately delayed and delayed again until it seems the only place Universal could find a window for it was on home video. Perhaps it was the costly flop of the high-profile computer animated The Tale Of Despereaux that temporarily put the studio off animation, even if it quickly bounced back with Focus’ Coraline and 9, or the generally regarded notion that traditional animation would have made a dent in the marketplace.
There was also the lack of returning vocal talents Ferrell and Barrymore, though the film does still sport a roster of names in the cast and ultimately the way it has been “dumped” is a real shame: Follow That Monkey is every bit as warm and winning as its predecessor. Replacing Ferrell as Ted, as The Man With The Yellow Hat is named in the first film, is Jeff Bennett and, since Ferrell didn’t exactly bring his wildman act to the character, the switchover goes remarkably unnoticed and provides a veteran animation vocal artist with a rare, and deserved, poster credit. As in the television show, here he mimics Ferrell’s softly spoken approach and brings a light-hearted enthusiasm to Ted that had me checking the end credits to make sure it wasn’t Ferrell…but, then again, it’s parts like these that people like Bennett have made a career from emulating so one perhaps shouldn’t be surprised.
Another legendary “behind the scenes” name well known to animation fans and also getting poster credit is Frank Welker, back to provide some squeaks and squawks as the title character, while some of the other named cast from the first film (most notably Van Dyke and Barrymore) also receive good and smoothly transitioned soundalikes for their characters. In the rest of the recording booth, Tim Curry adds yet another voiceover to his terrifically long list of cartoon credits, and doesn’t really do anything he hasn’t done before with his role of Piccadilly the kindly showman, but his proud English tones always capture a bit of magic even when he’s phoning it in. Comedian Jamie Kennedy adds another name to the cast, though the real surprise treat here is none other than Jerry Lewis.
Making something of a return to the screen in a number of recent voice roles, Lewis doesn’t really get a chance to dominate the film given his small stationmaster cameo, but has fun reaching out to a new audience, all of whom, of course, won’t know who the heck he is but won’t care: Lewis is sweet in a quieter than usual role, and the rest of the writing will give the adults one or two chuckles for good measure. The music of Jack Johnson was a big draw on the first film, and although I’d never really heard of him before that, his song Upside Down had the habit of sticking in my head for a while! He’s not involved here, but the option of having a musical artist collaborate on the music results in music from Carbon Leaf, a couple of whose songs become George’s new stick-in-the-head anthems for this outing.
Of the rest of the elements, the animation retains the feature quality look of the first film rather than downgrading to the more limited approach of the television series, the benefit also of having director Norton Virgien (of the two Rugrats movies) keeping things well paced. The overall story may be slighter and more child-friendly than the more densely packed plots of some animated films, and some of the cartooning might not be quite on par with the absolute best of Disney’s heyday, but it’s certainly better than the majority of direct-to-video product. Had Follow That Monkey made it to theaters in the US as originally imagined (and as it did indeed reach around Europe last summer), no-one would have been left embarrassed. With soft shading on the characters, a noticeable quality to the backgrounds, and a charming storyline, it matches the first film easily.
Is This Thing Loaded?
A delightful surprise awaits when this disc loads up in a computer drive, launching an unpublicised DVD-ROM section featuring several coloring pages ready for printing, a handful of wallpaper backgrounds to download, and a link to the Universal Kids website – not too much, but nice that the Studio has thought to include just that little bit extra. On running the disc in a standard video player, Universal previews play for the upcoming Despicable Me, Barbie: A Mermaid Tale, the first computer animated Lego movie The Adventures Of Clutch Powers, and a selection of Curious George volumes on DVD, a live stage show and the PBS Kids series on television.
Further promoting the TV show, after a fashion, are a pick of two Curious George television episodes (in truth a single show 24-minute of two stories) which have a bit of exclusivity about them in that they’re not due to be shown on the small screen until the fall. In A Monkey’s Duckling, George has to keep a handful of about to hatch eggs warm, forming a bond with one of the little chicks, and in George’s Super Subway Adventure, he discovers the city’s transportation system, accidentally losing contact with The Man With The Yellow Hat and riding the rails to the various destinations the train stops at. As opposed to some of the lines in the movies that may make older audiences smile, both episodes are more directly aimed at the series’ very small eyes and ears, though the animation retains a good ratio of quality and, if anything, the sketchier look is even more in keeping with the Reys’ original book illustrations.
Curious George’s Cross Country Caper Game essentially repeats the main plot of the movie, with George and elephant Kayla on the run from the security guy assigned to track them down, the player having to complete several simple puzzles (with different options each time) to stay one step ahead and return Kayla to her family. A montage of film clips in a two-minute Hold On, Here We Go music video rounds things off, a lack of a theatrical trailer understandable given that the film never made big screens, even if a DVD teaser that has shown up on other Universal discs might have been a good enough substitute. But this is a sweet little mix of extras that make up a nice package.
Pleasingly replicating the original Curious George treatment from 2006, Follow That Monkey sports a yellow-themed embossed slipcover featuring the same artwork as on the sleeve underneath, so that both titles line up nicely on the shelf. Changes from the first film’s DVD release include a (nicer) white keepcase as opposed to the first’s black, and a lack of any inserts or disc art, a simple screen print replacing the bright and colorful art for the previous film. A front-cover sticker proclaims the film as “twice the fun of the original” and, while this isn’t quite true, this sweet little film did deserve more than just being dumped to home video.
Ink And Paint:
The look of the Curious George films is intentionally warm in visual approach, with deep colors, curved edges and character shading all lending a hand to soften out the imagery. Even so, I did have to wonder if Universal’s disc was a little softer that it might be until a quick check against the original film on DVD proved to show that both films look identical. There’s a nice consistency between the two, and the disc shows off the book-like backgrounds nicely, the originally intended 1.78:1 ratio and progressive transfer pulling things away from the video premiere aspect and back towards a film-like experience.
Produced with a theatrical release in mind, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey is close to being as fully rounded as any major studio animated picture out there, though if there’s one thing that doesn’t quite meet those levels it’s the sometimes synthesized scoring. This is actually hardly noticeable, since the majority of the music comes from a small live ensemble, though that doesn’t help the “fake” sound of the instruments when they’re utilized, especially on what should be a huge rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. However, the 5.1 Dolby track is as lively as it needs to be, and in terms of production values, this is a perfunctory mix. English, Spanish and French dubs and subs are optional.
Those eagerly awaiting the return of Winnie The Pooh to screens in Disney’s next traditionally animated film would do well to discover the original Curious George on DVD, for the same kind of sweet natured storytelling. Although the fantastic book device employed in the Pooh films isn’t used by the filmmakers, there’s still very much the same feel, and the visuals suggest the characters have come to life from the pages of George’s adventures. Follow That Monkey pleasingly delivers a delightful little adventure that won’t shake the foundations of animation, but should please those fans (me counted!) of the first Curious George and serves up very nicely made “entry level animation” experience, especially at an extremely reasonable $20 price tag. Those who liked the first one should be more than curious!
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?