More Monkey Mayhem

Director Norton Virgien talks about making a terrific sequel to the 2006 movie, Curious George.

It’s been almost seven decades since children’s book authors Margret and H.A. Rey introduced the world to a delightful character named Curious George, and the little monkey shows no signs of slowing down. In March, Universal will release a direct-to-DVD sequel to the 2006 animated feature which finds George, The Man with the Yellow Hat, and a homesick elephant named Kayla on a cross-country trip to reunite the pachyderm with her family.

The 2D-animated pic is directed by animation biz veteran Norton Virgien, who oversaw numerous episodes of Duckman and Rugrats, the series’ two theatricals hits The Rugrats Movie and Rugrats Go Wild, and most recently directed episodes of Nick’s The Penguins of Madagascar.

A fan of the character since he was a young boy, Virgien says he loved the first movie a lot, so he jumped at the chance to work on the sequel, especially since he had worked with many members of the project’s creative team before.

‘What I love about Curious George is that he represents the essence of being a child,’ says Virgien. ‘He’s truly curious and optimistic about everything and he wants to learn everything that he can. Of course, he doesn’t know all the answers, so that’s where all the fun and havoc comes in.’

A key difference between the sequel (which is titled Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey!) and the original pic is the emphasis on George as the central figure. ‘In the 2006 movie, the Man With the Yellow Hat was just as important as George, but for our project, we decided to shift the spotlight back on [George],’ says Virgien. ‘Looking back at the books, he was often rambunctious and mischievous, so it was important for us to reflect that spirit of mischief as well. In human terms, he plays like a six or seven-year-old kid.’

Working with a charming screenplay by Chuck Tately, it was important for Virgien and his team to get the scenario as sharp and tight as possible before handing it over to the storyboard artists. ‘I’m a big fan of the script-driven process,’ says the director. ‘We worked very hard to avoid what happens in a lot of animated movies, where the project is reconceived halfway through the project. We dove in to the visual elements once we had a strong script to work with.’

Virgien also praises the talent and professionalism of the team at Manila’s Toon City, which worked on the movie’s animation. ‘It took us eight months to develop it and about 10 months to deliver the animation, and we were right on schedule,’ he notes. ‘Sadly, 2D talent is often under-utilized these days, so we were lucky enough to have some of the top feature animators in the Philippines working on our movie. There’s truly something special about working in the 2D medium and it gave the artists the chance to put pencil to paper once again.’

Although Curious George 2 has already opened theatrically in Sweden and Denmark, Universal is hoping to follow its The Land Before Time model and develop a home audience fan base for the franchise. ‘We created it with the visual style and story scope that would feel theatrical,’ adds Virgien. ‘We used Toon Boom Harmony’which we also did on Rugrats. The fellows putting digital ink and paint and camera effects did a lot to give the animation strong dimensionality. We are able to do a lot more with lighting and effects today than we were 10 years ago.’

As is the case with most DVD enterprises, the budget was a fraction of the first feature which reportedly cost about $50 million. However, Virgien believes that, sometimes, working with a tight deadline and a smaller budget can be a blessing in disguise. ‘It gives you a little more discipline,’ he says. ‘You can deliver a good job for the money when you have a script-based movie.’

According to the director, he and his team felt that they were carrying the baton of 2D animation, because they began work before they even knew that Disney had greenlit The Princess and the Frog. ‘We took it as a serious responsibility because I believe audiences can really feel the artists’ hand in what they’re watching’there’s more charm and integrity involved.’

The most daunting aspect of the project, says Virgien, was taking a new journey with a character that was been loved by so many people for such a long time. ‘We wanted to live up to this fabulous tradition, but at the same time, we also wanted the film to be modern and fresh. I’d hate for the fans to say that we haven’t lived up to the memory of the classic Curious George. The fact is that it’s the same amazing monkey and it all works beautifully in 2010.’

Universal releases Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey! on DVD on March 2.