Grade: B+/A-
Entire Family: Yes, but…
2019, 87 min., Color
Children’s, Animation
Rated G
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Sheet of 15 stickers
Clip
Amazon link

Raise your hand if the Curious George picture books by Hans Agusto Rey, Margret Rey, and illustrator Alan J. Shalleck helped you learn how to read. If so, you’re not alone.

Since the little monkey first appeared in 1941 with his friend, The Man in the Yellow Hat, all seven original titles penned and inked by this trio have remained in print. They’re that popular. And 2006 was a big year for the tailless monkey. That year, an animated TV show was launched that would run for nine more years, and Universal bankrolled a big-screen feature starring big-name talent and costing $50 million to make.

Producer Ron Howard was involved with both projects. “A lot of animated films throw in adult jokes meant to go over the heads of kids. Curious George doesn’t,” Howard told an interviewer. George doesn’t speak in the books, and Howard said that giving him a voice was never an option. “But you know, there have been a lot of very funny characters going back to Harpo Marx that didn’t have much to say,” he said.

The big-screen version didn’t make as much at the box office as the studio had hoped, and since then the movies have been feature-length direct-to-home-videos. Usually that’s a bad thing, but not in this case. The smaller expectations have allowed Howard and co-producing partner Brian Glazer to focus on the audience that the books were intended to reach.

Though two 2009 films, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas, were disappointments, the filmmakers found their groove with Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest (2013) and Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle (2015). And I’m happy to report that Curious George: Royal Monkey keeps the winning streak alive.

People have always been fascinated by royalty, and Disney has capitalized on that by creating a market for little princess wannabes. This latest Curious George outing takes advantage of that. In yet another variation on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, it’s the mischievous and free-spirited George who ends up inadvertently swapping places with the Royal Monkey in a small kingdom that places monkeys on a pedestal. And one main character is an adolescent princess, so little girls will find someone to identify with in this Curious George outing. Adults who watch with their little ones will also notice similarities to the classic Hollywood romance Roman Holiday, in which a princess flees from her royal responsibilities and yearns for a freer life. In terms of temperament, this princess is closer to George than she is the Royal Monkey or her no-nonsense father.

The Man with the Yellow Hat (Ted, voiced by Jeff Bennett) promises George that he’ll take him to The Castle theme park so he can be treated like royalty, but when he meets King Gustavo (Philip Anthony-Rodriguez) and George wanders off, he ends up being mistaken for the Royal Monkey (and vice versa) and ends up in a real castle. In no time at all, George, with his zest for life and insatiable curiosity, ends up taking the princess on her own little Roman Holiday, doing all the things she thought she’d have to leave behind when she is officially crowned Princess. Throw in a plot about why the king doesn’t allow music in the palace (it’s not a Sound of Music downer), and there’s a lot going on a film that still manages to stay true to the simplicity and tone of the original books.

Curious George: Royal Monkey is a gentle film with positive messages. The filmmakers avoid any kind of sassiness or tantrums or humor that’s in any way questionable, which seems to be the way of other direct-to-dvd animated features. As a result, parents may think it the best animated Curious George film yet. Though all ages can watch, it really isn’t an animated cartoon that aims for a broad family audience. The target age group is pre-school, but I could see kindergarten-age siblings watching as well and finding themselves enough entertained to want the character and object stickers that come with the movie—though, of course, they’ll deny it and pronounce it all “babyish”.

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