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Terry Rossio, one of the writers of “Shrek,” brings some of that fractured fairy tale energy to this week’s odd duck of an animated movie, a CGI fantasy that blends the familiar with the literary work of the legendary fantasy writer Terry Pratchett. The writer of the Discworld series took a detour for the 28th book in that series, 2001’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, winning the Carnegie Medal (a prize given by British librarians for the year’s best children’s book) for his efforts. The book sounds delightful, but Toby Genkel’s film isn’t quite so. It could be because of deviations from the source, the bland visual style of the film that’s just unambitious enough to be annoying, or the unengaging story, but “The Amazing Maurice” is, well, less-than-amazing. Only a game voice cast keeps it from total disaster.
Hugh Laurie voices the title character, a charming, talking cat in a world where not all animals talk. (Why he and his rat buddies can speak is one of the plot's mysteries.) Anyway, Maurice goes to small villages and sings about their rat problem, revealing that only he and his buddy Keith (Himesh Patel) can “pied piper” the rats out of town and save the day. For a price, of course. It’s all a scam. Keith, Maurice, and even the rats (including ones voiced by Gemma Arterton and David Tennant, among others) are just trying to make a little coin on their way across the country.
Maurice and the gang cross paths with the precocious Malicia (Emilia Clarke), who also narrates the film in a way that pushes the boundaries of meta-quirkiness. She’s a narrator who knows all of the tropes and clichés of a fantasy adventure story and so regularly calls attention to them with lines like “That’s the beauty of a framing device—I can tell you things about this story you wouldn’t otherwise know.” Clarke has some fun with the character device of someone who seems to know the genre of film they’re in, but it’s a bit that grows tired before it stops, one of several choices by Rossio that feels like it thinks it’s smarter than it is. It’s often a problem with meta-, self-aware screenwriting because it can easily verge into pretentious condescension.
The kids probably won’t notice. They’ll go along for the ride as Malicia, Keith, and Maurice investigate why all the food has gone missing in a new village. Is there an actual famine or plague on the horizon? Or could it be the fault of the masked villain (David Thewlis) who seems to be pulling some very bizarre strings? Thewlis is the king of the malevolent voice work (his choices on “Big Mouth” are inspired) and he digs into the villain role here with gusto. To be fair, Clarke has just the right playful spirit, and Laurie nails the sly wit in a way that makes you want to see him actually voice the Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland fame.
It's an A-list voice cast saddled with a screenplay that’s just not up to their skill set. “The Amazing Maurice” is also another computer-animated film that never gets visually ambitious enough. Oh, it threatens to do so, with village streets that promise adventure down every alley, but the world-building here is surprisingly weak given the source material and the potential of the story to get weird. It’s almost as if the producers knew they had a bizarre book to adapt but never really embraced the quirkiness of this riff on the Pied Piper. Some of the rats are delightfully bizarre, but the character design is never as adventurous as it should be.
I generally avoid direct comparisons but there’s another fable-based story about a cat in theaters right now that makes it hard. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” was arguably the most surprising animated film of 2022, a family film that avoided sequelitis with daring visuals and a story in which parents and children could get invested. It didn’t rely on the familiar, giving its universe a rich visual language and unexpected twists. “The Amazing Maurice” almost feels more like a dull “Shrek” sequel than that Oscar nominee. Malicia may know everything about the clichés of the fable genre, but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable when her film falls into so many of them.
Hugh Laurie as Maurice (voice)
Emilia Clarke as Malicia (voice)
David Thewlis as Boss Man / Rat King (voice)
Himesh Patel as Keith (voice)
Gemma Arterton as Peaches (voice)
Hugh Bonneville as The Mayor (voice)
Ariyon Bakare as Darktan (voice)
Julie Atherton as Nourishing (voice)
David Tennant as Dangerous Beans (voice)
Joe Sugg as Sardines (voice)
Peter Serafinowicz as Death (voice)