My two year-old, Evee, became a big fan of the stuffed monkey I got for her last summer. It was on sale in the wake of the Curious George movie's merchandise push, and it was very cute. Before I went in to the store I had asked her, jokingly, if she needed anything, and she said "a monkey", so it seemed like an obvious choice once I saw the stuffed George. And until then, she hadn't had her own "special stuffed toy" to sleep with and carry around and hug tightly... she mostly had her choice of a variety of stuffed toys that her older sister had, but nothing of her very own (well, we had certainly given her stuffed toys before, but nothing that she had really glommed on to). It's a bedtime Curious George, and he's wearing a pajama with a bottom flap, and Evee has a lot of laughs pulling the flap open and saying "bummy!" There is a real personality connection between Evee and the character of "Monkey George", as she calls him... Evee is extremely curious and fun-loving, and when she's left a room it's almost as messy as if Curious George had been there.
So recently at the library, I realized, gosh, we should read some of the Curious George books. I loved those when I was little. Strange to see, though, how times have made some things in there a little bit awkward... such as the man in the yellow hat essentially being a poacher who grabs George for a zoo. I mean, zoos are good things and all, and at some points people have to go and get some animals for them... but it just doesn't seem like the best basis for a cute buddy story these days. And there are other things like George smoking from the man in the yellow hat's pipe, and being thrown in jail for making a prank phone call... Just not the kind of material that would seem quite as publishable in 2007 as it was in 1941. The book was enjoyable, regardless, but felt a little dated.
So I thought we'd give the new movie a try and see how the basic Curious George premise might be reimagined in 2006-07. To my delight, the movie is very entertaining and the changes to the original story are all cleverly done and work very well for the new story. There is a great voice cast including Will Farrell as the man in the yellow hat, David Cross (Tobias from Arrested Development), Drew Barrymore, Eugene Levy and Dick van Dyke, and a lot of humor throughout (and all very clean humor). We did pause the DVD after the intro ad for the Curious George PBS program showed George making all kinds of messes, and said to our girls that if we were going to watch this movie, we needed both of them to promise not to play "Monkey See, Monkey Do". And we had to remind them afterwards about that promise, as the urge to act like a mischievous monkey was pretty strong.
But on to the music, eh? That's what this is supposed to be about, right? The soundtrack for the movie includes several songs by Jack Johnson, the mellow acoustic singer/songwriter with the smooth as syrup on banana pancakes voice. At first my wife commented about the music being too mellow and I think I agreed and used the term "nondescript". The songs kind of blended into each other and didn't really stand out in any kind of distinct way. But the thing with a movie that kids love is that they will want to watch it again and again, which means that I am watching it again and again, or at least listening to it again and again while doing other things... and after several listens I've come to really enjoy the songs. And I realize that movie music shouldn't really call attention to itself, but it usually sets a general mood or underscores the feeling of the film. In that sense, these songs didn't really work because the feeling of the film is often very upbeat and fast-paced. But what did work and makes these songs perfect for this particular film is that I think it needed the contrast of something mellower to offset the action. I recall Stephen Sondheim talking about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and how the songs in that show weren't as funny as the comedy in the dialogue, and weren't intended to be, but were meant as a respite now and then from the frenetic humor. And I usually sequence my CDs in a similar way, mixing up the pacing of the humor and the song tempos to give some contrast and give kids a break now and then. So once I could appreciate how Jack Johnson's songs did fit so well along with the movie, even being so laid-back, then I could appreciate them a lot more for what they were.
"Upside Down" runs in full over the film's opening sequence and is a gently churning acoustic pop song which nicely "arrives" at the chorus and has some simple but effective acoustic lead lines. "People Watching" has a bouncy Beatles flavor and a cute and catchy hook as Jack sings, "Well, I'm just people watching the other people watching me". "Broken" has some grooving Hendrix Strat funk. "Talk of the Town" has a breezy Jimmy Buffet/James Taylor sound and shows off the cool tone of Jack's voice when he says "yea-ehh". "Questions" and "Supposed to Be" are both lazily beautiful ballads. The rest of the soundtrack includes other songs in a similar vein as the ones featured in the film and has some standouts including the sweet cover of the White Stripes' "We're Going to Be Friends"; the Beck-y backbeat blues of "The Sharing Song"; the funky soul of "3 Rs", which includes a take on the Schoolhouse Rock! classic "Three is a Magic Number"; and the pretty arpeggiated acoustic meanderings of "Wrong Turn".
So thumbs way up on both the film and the soundtrack. I should also mention another great Curious George song, which is the theme song for the new PBS show. This is a terrific swing jazz tune performed by Dr. John that is very catchy and really smokes (musically... no pipes). Having heard this prior to watching the movie, perhaps I was expecting the film's music to be more like this, which is why it took a little bit of 'warming up' to the soundtrack. This has the wildly upbeat and fun kind of sound that seems to have more of an immediate connection with the character of the monkey in question.
You can hear samples from Jack Johnson's Curious George soundtrack here. To hear the full version of the Curious George PBS TV show theme, go to this page and click on the Meet Curious George link.