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Curious George

(2006) ** 1/2 G
82 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Matt O'Callaghan. Cast: Joan Plowright, Shane Baumel, Timyra-Joi Beatty, Jessie Flower, Alexander Gould.

Yes, the tagline for Curious George's big-screen debut is "Show me the monkey!" But do you really want to be presented with the aforementioned simian? Aside from potential nostalgia value, Curious George is strictly for kids. That's fine, but the original storybooks are for kids, too: does the film offer any enhancement to the endearingly simple tales of H.A. and Margret Rey?

The skillful 2D-CGI animation hybrid starts out charmingly enough, with cute sight gags and general monkeying around, but as the 82-minute movie wears on, even kids may lose interest in the labored story. Jack Johnson's soft-sung songs are too generic to make much impact, so director Matthew O'Callaghan annoyingly drowns them out in the sound mix most of the time.

Will Ferrell supplies the voice of The Man in the Yellow Hat, here a hapless conquistador who finds a small monkey instead of the large, ape-shaped African shrine crucial to save his museum. Drew Barrymore plays the Man's love interest, and Dick Van Dyke and David Cross his dysfunctional father-and-son bosses. Eugene Levy plays an ill-advised character that taints the film's pleasantly old-fashioned feel: a nutty-professing, high-tech inventor (Joan Plowright rounds out the voice cast as a snooty victim of George's innocent troublemaking).

The voices, especially Ferrell's, keep the picture lively when the plotting fails to engage. Though screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, Ken Kaufman, Karey Kirkpatrick and Joe Stillman work hard to shoehorn in a message about, um, how museums should be more interactive (oh, yeah, and friendship is good), they more productively stitch in incidents from the books, like George going to town with paint or unwittingly flying off with a fistful of balloons. Would that the writers had added more such episodes in place of the questionable museum shenanigans (after all, should we be rooting for the plunder of an African shrine?).

Occasionally fun but hardly magical, Curious George makes some effort to honor the Rey's vision. Considering the horrid places a Curious George picture could have gone (three words: talking CGI monkey), this inoffensive and attractive kiddie flick isn't so bad. But when Dole Banana crates fill the screen in a hideous product placement, adults will recognize the film's true color as not yellow but the color of money.

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