This review originally ran January 23, 2023, in conjunction with the film’s US premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
The collected “Discworld” novels by Terry Pratchett are so weird and so imaginative and so wry that very few filmmakers have ever seriously tried to adapt them. We’ve had one short-lived live-action series, one short film, a few animated mini-series and three ambitious live-action mini-series. (“The Hogfather” is a perennial yuletide viewing experience for all of us, or at least it should be.)
But feature films have eluded the dwellers of “Discworld” until just about — actually wait, let me check my watch here — now.
“The Amazing Maurice,” based on the 2001 children’s book “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents,” features the voice of Hugh Laurie as the title character. He’s a cat who can talk in a world where cats don’t usually do that, even though magic is real, the living personification of Death walks among us and fairy-tale characters abound as well.
Then again, rats can’t talk either, but there sure are a lot of talking rats in “The Amazing Maurice.” It turns out they were living in the trash pile full of discarded wizard’s potions, they ate a bunch of weird glowing goo, and now here they are, like the rats of NIMH but more easily swayed by religious zeitgeist.
Because you see, Maurice has tricked these talking rats into believing that a children’s storybook, the Beatrix Potter–esque “Mr. Bunny Has an Adventure,” is actually a promise of a faraway utopia where animals wear clothes and live among humans as equals. But in order to get there, they’ll have to raise a lot of money, naturally. So Maurice and a human being with all the personality of a paper bag named Keith (Himesh Patel, “Enola Holmes 2”) pull a Pied-Piper scam, filling cities with rats and then musically removing them, cutting the rats in on the deal.
Unfortunately, the rats are now developing a complex and powerful sense of morality, thanks in large part to their spiritual leader Dangerous Beans (David Tennant). They don’t want to trick their way into paradise. But they embark on another job anyway in a town where, wouldn’t you know it, there are plot points afoot. A couple of rat-catchers have already removed the rats, but the food keeps disappearing anyway, and now it’s up to Maurice, Keith, the rats and the mayor’s daughter Malicia (Emilie Clarke) to solve the mystery and save the day.
Malicia is rather a lot. She narrates “The Amazing Maurice” via a framing device in which she explains the concept of a framing device, and then reduces every other aspect of the story to a familiar cliché as well. She does this within the story too, with practically every line of dialogue, and the film isn’t quite charming or funny enough to get away with that. You can only wink so many times before people think you’re not doing it on purpose and just have something in your eye.
It’s unfortunately rather endemic to “The Amazing Maurice” as a whole. It’s a film that’s extraordinarily clever and proud of itself, even though it rarely manages to make that cleverness fun for the rest of us. The film expects applause for its encyclopedic knowledge of tvtropes.com but rarely earns applause for using that self-awareness to make funny jokes, tell a satisfying story or impress us with genuine satirical insight.
Of course, animated movies about fairy-tale scenarios have been self-aware for quite a while now, and it’s not like the “Shrek” movies were so mind-bogglingly brilliant that nobody else can horn in on their territory. But “The Amazing Maurice” just has a frustrating way of making smart ideas seem uninspired and funny jokes not funny. It’s all in the execution, and the executioner has their hood on backwards and keeps swinging the axe anyway.
There are moments in “The Amazing Maurice” where director Toby Genkel, co-director Florian Westermann and screenwriter Terry Rossio (“The Lone Ranger”) lean heavily into the religious allegory and try to make serious points about faith, but the film sets up that conflict in such a halfhearted, clunky way that it doesn’t amount to much. Dangerous Beans seems to be a metaphor for Christian saviors but doesn’t have very much to expound other than hope is good, and not to take the Bible — I mean, “Mr. Bunny Has an Adventure” — too literally. A whole can of worms gets opened, and they only used one. It’s a bit of a waste.
As far as the characters go, Malicia is very amusing, but she sucks all the air out of the room, leaving poor Keith suffocating for screen time, character development or a sliver of personality. Maurice is ostensibly the lead, but it feels like the movie forgets about him most of the time, shoveling his path to redemption into the final act where it plays well but probably could have been set up more effectively and to bigger impact.
The animation in “The Amazing Maurice” is all perfectly competent, and occasionally rather playful, but it never quite matches the whirlwind energy of the story or (some of) the characters. Only the villainous Boss Man, voiced by David Thewlis, comes across like an interesting creation. The secret origins of his bizarre figure, swathed in baggy clothes, are rather obvious from the outset but nevertheless yield creepy, interesting physicality.
Families confusing “The Amazing Maurice” with a conventional American animated studio film may be somewhat surprised, however, to discover that the film goes to some deeply unpleasant places with its animal characters. Death is a literal figure here and so is, not coincidentally, Death of Rats, his rodential counterpart, and they’re on the job today. The sudden onset of violence in the film is technically off camera but nevertheless harsh, and families should probably be prepared for it, even if it’s arguably necessary for the heaviness of the thematic material to sink in.
It’s tempting to sign off by arguing that “The Amazing Maurice” isn’t amazing, but it’s not an everyday film either. It’s a seemingly honest attempt to translate Terry Pratchett’s bizarre, overstuffed, heady world of wonder into an animated film that’s relatively family-friendly, and everybody here deserves bonus points for even trying. They came pretty close to getting the mixture right; it would just be an exaggeration to say they got close enough.
“The Amazing Maurice” opens in US theaters Feb. 3.