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Toonzone Talks with Norton Virgien on Directing "Curious George 2"

Norton Virgien probably owes a lot of his career to rugrats.

Specifically, Nickelodeon’s Rugrats, for whom he worked as a storyboard artist and director before being tapped to co-direct 1998′s The Rugrats Movie. His success at bringing the kids of the Pickles family from small screen to large led to a second stint directing Rugrats Go Wild and a reputation for being able to produce material that could appeal to kids and adults alike.

Virgien believes it was that reputation and those skills that led to his position directing Curious George 2: Follow that Monkey, the direct-to-video follow-up to the 2006 feature film that brought Margret and H.A. Rey’s famous kids-lit primate to the big screen. We were able to chat briefly with Virgien via phone before the movie’s release date of March 2, 2010, where he explained that the long time between movies was because the producers were willing to let the crew spend a full feature-length development cycle on the movie, meaning it took two full years to produce from start to finish.

Virgien also clarified something that might have confused fans of the Curious George movies and TV show, stating that “the two projects were developed in parallel,” but separately, which is why the TV show premiered on PBS Kids so soon after the movie was in theaters. However, despite several common cast and crew members, the movie line and TV series work as separate but independent productions under the same production company umbrella. This is why in the movies, George’s human friend is named Ted and he has a girlfriend named Maggie, while he’s the girlfriend-less Man with the Yellow Hat on the TV show. Virgien noted that it’s easy to tell who’s working on what because people will be talking in the hallway, and “someone will say ‘Ted,’ and the other person will ask, ‘Ted? Oh, you mean the Man with the Yellow Hat!’”

One thing that separates the Curious George films from their competitors is that they may be the only animated kids films in recent memory that have no jokes about noisy bodily functions. This is a deliberate choice, since it was important to Virgien to maintain the tone and sentiments from the original books by Margret and H.A. Rey. In preparation for his work on the movie, he spent quite a bit of time with the original books and recognized that “these are heirlooms that people have passed down for generations.” As a result, he didn’t want to mess with the perception that people had in their heads for Curious George, which meant no fart jokes or other attempts to make George “edgy.” While Virgien recognized that “going edgier and pushing the boundaries might be a good way to get a larger audience,” the producers and crew were willing to avoid that to stay closer to people’s idea of George.

When asked what was the toughest scene to animate in the film, Virgien’s first instinct was to mention one of the action sequences before switching to the first meeting between George and Kayla the baby elephant, whose homesickness launches the movie into its cross-country plot. It was a scene “with two characters who are shy and don’t speak, trying to communicate a lot of things to each other,” and Virgien recognized that it was the core scene of the movie. If it didn’t succeed at selling the idea that George and Kayla would become friends, the rest of the movie would pretty much have fallen apart. He said that he handed it to one of his best storyboarders to work with, since she was the most talented person on staff for animated acting, and was tremendously pleased with the work she turned in. At the same time, he also went to the music crew, described the scene, and asked, “What can you do for us here?” The result was a delightful little song about friendship that melded beautifully with the animation, with each reinforcing the other. It’s a scene he’s tremendously proud of because it works so well, and is probably his favorite in the movie.

Adults in the audience will also get a kick out of a few jokes that might fly by too fast for kids to pick up on, like Ted’s list of ideas for the museum or the presence of Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix, and Woody Woodpecker in a voiceprint identification lineup. Virgien told us that he “aimed to make a movie that parents could enjoy with their kids,” which led to a lot of these sorts of quick jokes getting slipped into the movie. He was the one who came up with Ted’s list, since it wasn’t much more than squiggles on the storyboard, and he added that Woody was in the line up because “he’s a Universal property, so we could put him in pretty easily.”

After shepherding through three movies of other people’s properties, Virgien is about to embark on a new adventure of his own, developing his own material to bring to the screen. If he can bring the same touch that he brought to the Pickles and a famous literary monkey, the kids of the future will definitely have something to look forward to.

Curious George 2: Follow that Monkey is available now on DVD.

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