You know him as a frisky monkey who charms his way into all sorts of trouble. But the story of Curious George’s creators, Hans and Margret Rey, is even more compelling.
The new movie “Monkey Business: The Curious Adventures of George’s Creators,” currently raising money on Kickstarter (check it out; there are just a few days left to donate!), tells their unusual story. The Reys were German Jews who narrowly escaped Nazis on makeshift bicycles that they rode across Europe, all while toting unpublished “Curious George” manuscripts. They arrived in the United States in 1940.
Filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki grew up on “Curious George” in her native Japan and longed to tell their story.
“I grew up reading ‘Curious George’ and stumbled on this story of the Reys, who fled the Nazis on bicycles. I had a chance to hear an audio recording of them, and I heard their strong German accents. I don’t think we ever really think about who writes these books that we grow up reading. But their global adventures as refugees and the dramatic parts of their lives showed me why George is so loved,” she says. In fact, sometimes the Reys make cameos in George’s books as background sketches.
Yamazaki obtained exclusive rights to the Rey estate at the University of Southern Mississippi and was able to tell their story through archived photos and animation provided by Boston native Jacob Kafka. If they reach their Kickstarter goal, Oscar-nominated “Law & Order” icon Sam Waterston will narrate.
Yamazaki and Kafka say they felt a connection to the Reys, who were also multinationals having lived in Brazil, Paris and ultimately New York City, especially with immigration and refugee crises at the center of current and urgent international debate. Yamazaki has lived all over the world, and Kafka is the son of a Boston-area rabbi. The filmmakers met at New York University.
“Being Jewish and an artist is a story I identify with, like the Reys,” Kafka says. He provided 25 minutes of animation (and an impressive 15,000 sketches) for the 75-minute film. He says he did his best to replicate the Reys’ style when depicting their lives. “I wanted to tell their story, from birth to death, the way they would have told it,” he says.
The filmmakers will host a Kickstarter fundraising party on Aug. 21 at Cambridge’s The Curious George Store at 6:30 p.m. Kids can visit with Curious George and enjoy free Chunky Monkey ice cream (naturally) from Ben & Jerry’s, plus get sneak peeks at 75th-anniversary Curious George memorabilia. Twenty percent of store sales will be donated to the campaign. Yamazaki says the film will go wide no matter what, but Kickstarter will help propel its completion.
“Lots of close calls made George possible,” says Yamakazi. “I hope anyone touched by that little monkey all over the world will watch the movie.”