As a girl in Japan, Ema Ryan Yamazaki fell in love with The Monkey. She read his books. And she grew up with him in her life. She always assumed The Monkey was a Japanese creation, and that was his name. At least until she came to the United States.
“There were very few things I shared from my childhood with my new American friends,” Yamakazi says. “He was one of those things. As I got to know people from other countries, we were all kind of claiming him as our own. There’s something about him that somehow is universal.”
The Monkey was Curious George. And like kids all over the world for the past 75 years, Yamakazi connected with the playful and inquisitive character and his tales. As she navigated film school at NYU and started working on her own projects — like the documentaries Monk By Blood and Neither Here Nor There — George never left her mind. It was only when she learned the story of Curious George’s creators, Margret and Hans Rey, that Ema’s nostalgia for the character turned into a fascination.
The German-born Reys met — and married — in 1935 and later moved to Paris. When the Nazis invaded France, husband and wife made a plan to flee to the South of France in 1940. They went into a bike store to secure transportation, but the only bike remaining was a tandem. Margret tried to get the hang of riding the two-person bike and couldn’t. Due to her (admittedly) impatient nature, she gave up.
In a habit that would follow the pair through many years of marriage, she left it up to Hans to solve the problem. So he took spare parts and built makeshift bikes for each of them, and they rode off to safety — with the original Curious George manuscript. They crossed into Spain and continued to travel from place to place before winding up in New York City, where they published the first Curious George book in 1941.
“You never think about who the masterminds are behind these things we love as kids,” Yamakazi says. “We’re too small to even consider that. That story was enough for me to pursue this idea. As I read more about it, I was shocked no one had made a film about them yet, and I decided to take it on.”
A mutual friend put Ema in touch with the executor of the Rey estate, Lay Lee Ong, who was close friends with the Margret Rey over the years. Ong first met Margret as a student and was hired to house- and dog-sit for them in the 1970s. She helped them with the business operations of Curious George and was eventually made executor after Rey died in 1996.
Ong had been approached over the years by individuals wanting to document the Rey family story, especially after Louise Borden’s book The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey came out in 2010, but she’d been hesitant and wanted to make sure the right person worked on the project.
That right person, Ong decided, was Yamakazi.
As an immigrant herself, Yamakazi’s journey mirrored that of the Reys in some respects. And her passion for the project showed through to Ong. So Ema was given use of the archives now housed at the University of Southern Mississippi and the blessings of the estate in 2014 to move forward with the project, and work on Monkey Business became a round-the-clock endeavor for her.
She brought in animator Jacob Kafka, who was in the same class at NYU, and the pair set to work at making their passion project a reality. Kafka’s drawing style was inspired by Curious George as well as Winnie The Pooh and Peanuts, and as a Jewish artist himself, he was captivated by the Reys’ story.
“I love that gentle, heartwarming style,” Kafka says, “especially with animals. And George is a great example of that. Telling stories through animals allows everyone to project themselves onto the characters. What’s amazing about Curious George is how minimal it is. They can get so much emotion out of so few lines.”
Ema conducted more than 30 on-camera interviews, and countless other interviews on the phone, to get background on the Reys and find the right anecdotes to include in the documentary. She talked to neighbors and friends in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Mississippi and elsewhere. But some of the best stories came from children who grew up with George, and around the Reys.
A third of the film is animated, and Yamakazi looked to the Reys’ style for inspiration. As she continued researching she noticed a magical element to the character that fit the Reys’ own story and how they presented themselves. During World War II, the couple were investigated for potentially being German spies. Their thick accents and heavily stamped passports were a red flag apparently. But when an officer searched their things he found drawings of George. He deduced they were merely artists and let them go.
The Reys always downplayed these incidents and told them matter of factly, and they considered George’s tales to be merely adventures and didn’t want people reading into larger metaphors from the books. That contrast between the Reys’ unique backstory and Curious George‘s straightforward style was powerful to Yamakazi, and she wanted to make sure she told it in an appropriate manner.
As someone who never knew the Reys, she looked to those who did know them and who have studied them for years to help her get to know them. “The way the Reys through their own ingenuity could find a way to move forward even in some dire circumstances is just like George,” Yamakazi says. “Time and time again he does that. Now that I know the Reys better through this film, it’s clear they had to be who they were before they could ever create this character.”
That character is the one who has captivated kids for generations. Curious George has a timelessness that allows him to move from period to period — and country to country. Hans Rey’s drawing style has helped make George a timeless creation. Kids of any generation are attracted to the book’s color and warmth. That George doesn’t speak, with his expressions and actions telling the story, makes his tales universal and easy to understand regardless of cultural context. He really strikes a chord with children, no matter where — or when — they grow up. It’s no wonder that George has proven adaptable to many media, appearing on TV shows, a 2006 movie, and in apps and games. No matter how kids learn, George can still be there.
Ema has continued to move forward with the project, bringing on experienced filmmaker Marc Levin as executive producer, unveiling a Kickstarter campaign, and recruiting Law and Order’s Sam Waterston to narrate the film. “As a child I knew and loved the Curious George stories,” Waterston says in a release. “My grandchildren are delighted by them now. I didn’t know much about the Reys or who created them. It’s a terrific story. I’m very glad the invitation to narrated the artful, apt and imaginative documentary that Ema Ryan Yamakazi and her team have made about them came my way.”
From Waterston to Ong and everyone in between, all those individuals who have been touched by Curious George allowed Ema to increasingly understand how important The Monkey has been to so many people like herself. That makes her want to share the Reys’ story that much more.
“It’s been overwhelming to hear the reaction of the public in learning the Reys’ story for the first time,” Yamakazi says. “It’s one thing to get a donation, but it’s another to have all these messages from people around the world wanting to learn about them. As a filmmaker, of course I find them interesting or I wouldn’t have spent two and a half years of my life on the project. But to get this confidence that it’s something people want to see is so great. We’re so close. I’ve never done anything like this.”
After 75 years, Curious George’s adventure is still going strong, and Ema Ryan Yamakazi’s is just beginning. With a little luck the documentary will be finished soon, and people can finally learn the Reys’ amazing story. Hey, Curious George Goes to a Film Festival has a nice ring to it.