For most people born in the U.S. over the last 50 years, the Curious George books are as ubiquitous as Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit or Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch.
Yet before Curious George’s widespread appeal hit the mainstream, there was an extraordinary adventure from his creators, without which we would never know him and his unforgettable charm. The documentary “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators ” is a mixed-medium look at the true story of the husband-wife team that created Curious George– Hans and Margret Rey.
The Reys were German Jews, born at the turn of the 20th Century in 1898 and 1906, respectively. Hans was the artist and possessed many of the personality traits that their fictitious monkey George did, most notably, of course, an insatiable curiosity and cheeky sense of humor. In contrast, Margret was the businesswoman, no-nonsense and always pushing for the best; like George, she always crafted solutions to challenging situations. Through the film, small details help us fully realize the shared traits in Geroge that come from both of these characters. Case in point, Hans’s biography (Selling Bathtubs on the Amazon) is revealed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke. Margret’s determination is comically blunt and allows her to succeed: she takes a boat all the way from Germany to Brazil to tell Hans that she is going to marry him, even though they have never dated. These are two of many anecdotes that make “Monkey Business” so enjoyable to watch. Each step of their journey, which starts as two separate ones but shortly becomes tandem, is a beautiful mix of whimsical and adventurous, even during the hardest of times like escaping Nazi France with George sketches in hand.
For the Reys, the children’s book-making that eventually led to the creation of their most famous character, Curious George, was a form of emotional release and a positive way to get through everything that they’d experienced.
For the Reys, the children’s book-making that eventually led to the creation of their most famous character, Curious George, was a form of emotional release and a positive way to get through everything that they’d experienced. Like another great documentary from this year’s LA Film Festival, “Liyana,” “Monkey Business” is rooted in the theme that stories have the power to transform the world. Stories can offer an essential escape to those who need it, especially in times of tragedy and darkness.
I’ve saved the film’s highlight for last, which is its decision to incorporate the same animation style as the Curious George books to tell the Rey’s own story. The execution of this perfectly tailored animation is what makes the entire story shine. Despite living through hardships, the Reys chose to view life with this whimsy optimism. According to their neighbors who were interviewed for the film, they described escaping Europe on bicycles as the ultimate adventure instead of the harrowing task it most likely was. It’s easy to see that their relationship, a lifelong love and true partnership, allowed them to thrive in all situations, perilous or otherwise. With Hans’ jubilance and Margret’s stubbornness, their journey was never dull.
Like many of the great recent documentaries, “Monkey Business,” narrated by Sam Waterston, is proof that animation in nonfiction filmmaking is a match made in heaven, and I frankly can’t get enough of these mixed-medium films. Director Ema Ryan Yamazaki clearly shows her astute knowledge of the source material and knows how to keep the story moving, again mainly served by the animation sequences. Some of the book-style transitions look a little too computer animated for my taste (it could’ve easily been done well using a mix of more actual books). But the animation that matters most, the story of the Rey duo, is impeccable– looking like another adventure in the Curious George series. This is a terrific documentary that’s simultaneously ground-breaking and uplifting.
“Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators ” will be released by The Orchard in theaters and on VOD this August, and I look forward to sharing it with storytellers and story lovers of all ages when it does.