Curious George and his friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat, have a new adventure in a straight-to-DVD feature-length movie, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey, available on March 2. I got to talk to director Norton Virgien about what has kept the little monkey so popular for nearly seventy years and what it was like to (try to) direct Jerry Lewis.
What has kept Curious George so endearing to children over four generations?
We all love the characters because when you see something in the characters that you recognize in your family and friends, that makes an instant connection, doesn’t it?
I think children identify with his curiosity and get a kick out of his getting into trouble. And they like the way he is protected by the Man in the Yellow Hat.
Thinking about all the generations of families that have passed that book from parent to kid, it’s daunting. I would be very disappointed if we did something with an iconic character that people thought was off tone. Even though there was an earlier Curious George movie, we went back to the books and reread them all and noticed right away that the character was a little more mischief-prone and rambunctious than he was in the movie, were he was very very young. His curiosity was like a very little child seeing things for the first time. In our version, we let him grow up just a little bit and get a little closer in spirit to the character in the books. He thinks he’s at home in the world and knows his way around the city and that he’s pretty sharp. But we instantly find out that he still has a lot to learn. And that’s the spirit of the books. He’s one step back closer to that original character, which I’m proud of.
How do you direct Jerry Lewis? People have tried for decades and I don’t think anyone has ever succeeded!
We tailored the character to him. When we had the opportunity to work with him, we fond a part that was just the right spice in the middle of our story, when we needed to pick up the energy, and so he is this curmudgeonly character. Except for encouraging him to be his comedic self and let the Jerry Lewis persona come through, we sat back and enjoyed his performance. I wasn’t going to say to him, “Mr. Lewis, let’s revert to our childhood self.”
I think he’s already there!
He was so fun, though! And we got to travel to Las Vegas, which his where he lives.
The other legendary person we got to work with was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. It was stunning for me as someone who grew up with that music, that he was excited about Curious George and wanted to do a song for us.
What did you tell him you were hoping for from the music?
I had a song I’d loved as a child called California Sun in mind for the moment when Curious George decides to go to California. It just fit that moment perfectly. Most people thought of that as a Beach Boys song. But it’s by the Rivieras. Somewhere along the line someone in our brain trust thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to get a Beach Boy to sing that song?” And Brian actually added a new melodic break in the middle and it was really fun to see him at work. If there’s one person who really understands California music, it’s Brian. He understood what we wanted better than we could have told him. But he was extremely engaging and friendly and wanted to know each of our favorite Beach Boys songs. A very sweet man!
And Matt Lauer is in the movie, playing a newscaster!
Matt was great. Matt plays Matt Lauer perfectly and was such a good sport about it.
And another of my favorites, Tim Curry is in the film.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on several projects. Animators look to the voice actors for inspiration and energy. He is such a high energy performer and so unabashed in pushing the part in whatever direction he needs to go that he pushes the animators too. His animation is among the most expressive which has a lot to do with Tim.
What did you do to keep the film consistent with the illustrations from the books?
The animators in the first movie really did a good job with their interpretation of the original art, the purity and sense of color and it added filmic treatment to give it depth. We took that as a wonderful starting point and built on that.
What age range to you try to appeal to?
The richest way to enjoy family entertainment is with the whole family. We want to make a movie that has a lot for parents and kids to laugh at together.
What inspires you?
What inspires me about doing family entertainment is the thought that each of these films we are doing will be the first movie someone falls in love with. Our audience is so open and available to us. If we put meaning and heart and fun into the film, we’re going to touch that fresh audience in a special way. That’s an honor and a responsibility and not to be taken lightly either.