LA Film Festival Review: Curious George Documentary is a Fascinating Bit of ‘Monkey Business’

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It’s fascinating to learn the surprising origin stories behind certain childhood icons. Curious George has been a wholesome staple in children’s literature for 75 years and shows no signs of going away. What’s interesting is the story of the authors of Curious George. The married authors of the children’s series were German Jewish refugees who endured quite a harrowing escape to America. The curious and rebellious nature of these authors brought them to America and provided them a voice to children that would outlive both of them. This captivating story is chronicled in the new documentary, “Monkey Business: Adventures of Curious George’s Creators.”

Hans and Margaret Rey brought Curious George to life during their stay in Paris in the late 1930s and early 1940s. However, the Germans infiltrated Paris before their dreams could be realized there. The couple embarked on a harrowing bike ride to escape Paris and eventually found their way to America. While there, they were able to contact a publisher and bring George into the mainstream.

In the documentary, many of the Reys’ former neighbors spoke of their time interacting with the couple. It was great to hear these insider perspectives and learn how they were able to put their traumatic journey aside to live a normal life. It also highlights how different Hans was from Margaret, and how that made their relationship work. Hans would read to the children in the neighborhood any chance he could get. Margaret was more curt and would always storm in to get Hans to go back to work. Interview footage of Margaret accentuates this perfectly. She never minced words and wasn’t afraid to go after what she wanted. If she saw something she didn’t like, you better believe you would hear about it.

What makes the documentary so beautiful and accessible is the simple animation. The film employs cartoon drawings to represent the Reys throughout their journey. The film succeeds at placing these children’s authors as colorful outsiders to the horrific actions of war. Their animated personalities are also seamlessly integrated into stock war footage, heightening the setting of the struggle this couple felt. This really brings to life all the locations and events in the Reys’ journey. In addition, the animation was able to mirror the style of the Curious George books. Director Ema Ryan Yamazaki makes interesting stylistic choices, like this, throughout the film. In the end, she was able to craft a beautiful and swift moving documentary.

At the end of the day, Curious George is a story of a cute animal’s curiosity getting him into trouble and a confidant forgiving him. Hans was the curiosity and Margaret was the mischief. They complimented each other, and got each other into trouble based on their characteristics. Most of all, they forgave each other and were partners for life. Their legacy remains as one of a few institutions that will continue to have a profound influence on children.

The documentary is quite engaging throughout. However, the most powerful takeaway is learning how to tell a lasting story. Adapt your experiences and find a way to share it in an engaging way with others. Fleeing one’s home is a traumatic situation. However, Curious George finds his way in and out of problems and always comes out ahead. Art sometimes is more satisfying than life as we have more control over art. Thus, take control of your art, your story, and tell it.

“Monkey Business: Adventures of Curious George’s Creators” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. For more Los Angeles Film Festival coverage, visit the Festivals section.

Grade: (★★★1/2)

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