A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The animated movie adaptation of the classic Curious George children's book series opened this February to positive reviews. Critics praised the film as amiable and faithful to the spirit of the books, which follow the adventures of George the playful monkey (or chimpanzee, his species is ambiguous) who is brought to New York by an individual known only as the Man in the Yellow Hat. While beloved by millions today, the Curious George stories are very much a product of a different era (the first Curious George book was published in 1941). For example, the Man in the Yellow Hat (the movie gives him the name "Ted") seems to be an unethical animal collector, perhaps even a poacher. The movie's producers sidestepped the problem by making Ted a kind of curator for New York's "Bloomsbury Museum." In the movie, the museum has fallen on hard times, and the only way to revive its fortunes is for Ted to travel to the "Lost Shrine of Zagawa" in Africa and take its 40-foot ape idol, in hopes that it will draw bigger crowds to the museum. During the expedition, Ted meets Curious George, and endearing hijinks ensue. But while they avoided casting the Man in the Yellow Hat as a poacher, the filmmakers opened themselves up to accusations (voiced in op-ed columns and on the web) that they had turned the Man in the Yellow Hat into a looter.
Daniel Greenstone, a social historian at the American School in Taipei, says the Man in the Yellow Hat has always been problematic. "In the first book, he shows no paternal affection toward George. He tricks him, ties him up, plies him with alcohol and tobacco, and transports him to another continent." The series also never explained what, if any, job the Man in the Yellow Hat has. "He seems to be a sort of amateur adventurer-explorer-naturalist, perhaps a bit like Teddy Roosevelt," says Greenstone.
In updating the original character, the producers of the film decided that the Man in the Yellow Hat should be timid. "He's lonely and geeky so that his character would be improved by virtue of association with George," says Greenstone. "But this presented the screenwriters with a problem. How do you get a frightened nerd to Africa? Well, it seems they settled on archaeology as the obvious solution. No offense."
Matthew O'Callaghan, the film's director, says that getting Ted to Africa was a big challenge. "We couldn't have him just take George from the jungle. So instead of having him go to Africa to steal animals, we decided to have him go to find this undiscovered idol, a piece of stone no one knew about."
The question of whether taking the ape idol was ethical did come up during the making of the movie. "We debated it throughout the production," says O'Callaghan. "We knew it wasn't a great idea for him to go to Africa and take an idol and bring it back to the States. We went round and round about how to deal with it." Ultimately, says O'Callaghan, the movie didn't have the right audience for even a brief explanation of the ins and outs of exporting a country's cultural patrimony. "We just felt it was the wrong audience to explain it to. I understand the criticism, I really do. But we couldn't come up with a solution. There wasn't an entertaining way to deal with it."
Sibel Kusimba, a Northern Illinois University archaeologist who works in Kenya and is the mother of two young children, doesn't buy it. "If a movie is aimed at children I don't think we should have a separate set of standards for what is acceptable. Our children are exposed and acculturated by these movies."
Popular depictions of museums and archaeologists being indifferent to ethical issues do matter. As good natured as the movie is, Kusimba notes, the Man in the Yellow Hat is an inadvertent illustration of a very grave threat. "Thefts of cultural artifacts from Africa are going on at an accelerated pace. They are being stolen from both archaeological sites and museums. And in the case of the Vigango figurines of the Kenyan coast, wooden representations of ancestors are literally being taken from people's yards while they sleep, and they end up all over the world. Trafficking in African artifacts is a serious problem. The movie doesn't help."
It's too soon to say whether there will be a sequel to Curious George, says O'Callaghan, but given the movie's success, the odds are good that there are plenty of screenwriters already working on scripts. Maybe there is one out there with the working title Curious George and the Repatriation of the Ape Idol.