Like adult fiction, children’s books divide nicely into two groups: the books we read to stimulate our brains, and those that help us go to sleep at night. The biggest mistake made with this film is trying to bring a bedtime story to life. And by that I don’t mean it was wrong to try and film the beautifully rendered books by H.A. and Margret Rey, which have been showing children epic-scale mischief — balloons, paint, ketchup factories — and parental salvation via the Man in the Yellow Hat since 1941. (The Reys, German Jews living in Paris, escaped to New York and Houghton Mifflin minutes before Hitler arrived.)
The problem here derives from adding a backstory and an adventure for the Man in the Yellow Hat and, worse, a dorky unresolved subplot, featuring a beleaguered museum director (voiced by Dick Van Dyke) and his ne’er-do-well son. The whole point of the George books is to lull children into dreams knowing that no matter how wild they get, a faithful adult is going to save and forgive them. The museum director subplot seems to suggest that even nice parents won’t love their own kids if it’s inconvenient. Like the voice of Will Ferrell, the modernization jars the classic’s world.
That being said, the animation is serviceably pretty throughout. In an era where Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki are both in their primes, it’s hard to compete. But when confined to the silent adventures of George, it’s lovely, and the kids in the theater never budged. We also have our own comfort-food music of Jack Johnson warbling warmly in the background of these extreme hijinks. Had the studios been brave enough to release these as silent monkeyshines with sweet tunes from a film major surfer dude, they might have made a story good enough to make children want to go to sleep.