March 03, 2006

Curious George

by psu

I was going to rant and foam at the mouth tonight about the sorry state of the current battle in the consumer electronics industry over "convergence" of entertainment devices in the living room. Unfortunately, I'm just not interested enough in the problems to really build up to a good froth.

So instead, I'm going to write about something light, friendly, and enjoyable. A couple of weeks ago, we went to see Curious George. Here we have something rare in modern Hollywood: an adaptation of a well known and beloved character that is not so offensive as to make you want to disembowel the production team.

Adaptations like this must be really really difficult to do well because in recent years almost every attempt resulted in something that should have been melted down and turned into soda bottles. You have to applaud the people who made Curious George for doing several obvious things right:

No Live Action

You can't take a book that is illustrated in a cartoon-like style and turn it into a live action film. It just doesn't work. This seems obvious, but apparently someone as intelligent as Mike Meyers didn't understand this.

Happily, not only is Curious George not live action, it is drawn in a style that is a throwback to classic animation and fits perfectly with the style in which the books were illustrated. This is the first animated film in a while that actually looks like a cartoon. Seeing the pastel shaded little monkey get up and start walking around was just magic if you grew up with this book.

No Shrekisms

I'm going to unfairly pick on Shrek now. This is mean, but I think it is critical that someone hears this. I think this because the trailers that ran before Curious George started point out a disturbing trend children's cinema. People seem to think that all you need to do to make as much money as Shrek did is to take zoo animals and transplant out of their normal habitats on the flimsiest of narrative excuses and then equip these animals with a combination of utlra-detailed rendering and a constant stream of hip cultural references. I counted no fewer than four upcmoing movies in this batch of trailers that were cut out of this mold.

Apparently the thought is that if you render the animals in a way that is stupid enough, you will entertain the children. Especially if they make fart noises. Also, as long as one character spends the whole movie doing an Eddie Murphy standup routine, you will be able to keep the parents from remembering that they are in a room full of screaming children who are not really paying attention to the movie (because the movie is stupid).

Here is what I have to say: STOP. Instead of just making Shrek over and over again, you should find a story someone wants to watch and then build an art style around that story rather than just aping the latest Pixar or Dreamworks magic.

Respect the Material

Don't be condescending to either the audience or the original story. The audience are not morons and the original story has held up for longer than some of the filmmakers have been alive. Therefore, don't dumb it down or dress it up.

Curious George followed this rule well. Some aspects of the story that were anachronistic were adjusted, a few new details and subplots were added to make the film hold together, but the film resisted the temptation to add gratuitous "complexity" or "maturity" to the story. This made some critics complain that the story was shallow or simplistic. These critics are stupid. This is a children's movie. You don't need a complicated and mature plot in a children's film (see "No Shrekisms").

Use good music

Having done nothing horribly wrong, the place where the film does something extremely well is in the music. The soundtrack by Jack Johnson hits just the right tone, and is light, clever and swinging without being sentimental or saccharine. I love the music in this movie, and buying the soundtrack reminded me how much fun I had watching the film.

You should go and have some fun too. Bring a kid, or don't. Just sit there in the dark and let your feet dance to the songs.

Posted by psu at March 3, 2006 07:29 PM | Bookmark This

So did you not like shrek? Or just wish they had not started a trend?

Just curious, I don't lynch people based on their movie preferences. I personally enjoyed shrek a great deal but would have enjoyed it just as much without the Matrix takeoffs and other such things that you complain about.

Posted by Doug at March 4, 2006 11:19 AM

I thought Shrek was OK. Not great, but not bad.

As I said, I am probably being unfairly bitter about the general trend that it may or may not have started.

You can actually trace the hip out of place animated character problem back to the genie that Robin Williams played in Alladin.

Posted by psu at March 4, 2006 01:08 PM

The message I always got out of Shrek was: "Appearances don't matter, as long as you aren't short".

Posted by Mike Collins at March 5, 2006 10:55 AM

Hmmm, I was about to mock you for attributing this to Shrek instead of Aladdin, but I see you've already covered your bases. So, instead I'll mock you for your disturbing zombie-killing addiction.

Posted by Eric Tilton at March 6, 2006 11:46 AM

Ah, in general, yes the animated children's movies have been somewhat off the mark, but I see Shrek outside of that. Shrek was, first and foremost, a parody of children's animated movies --- particularly Disney ones. It hit every major cliche on the way, poking fun at every turn.

And anytime anyone in Hollywood makes money doing something, 100 imitators will pop up trying to do something to capitalize on it.

Posted by John at March 6, 2006 03:49 PM

I thought Shrek was pretty good, better than Madagascar for example (which suffers from all the children's-animated-film-by-numbers problems you mention).

The worst offender was Toy Story, which has such a know-your-place message running through it I felt physically sick. "You can only be happy if you're doing what your owner tells you"? What the heck is this, some kind of mind control?

Posted by Andy P at March 9, 2006 10:27 AM

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