Producers: Emely Christians, Andrew Baker, Robert Chandler and Robert Wilkins Directors: Toby Genkel and Florian Westermann Screenplay: Terry Rossio Cast: Hugh Laurie, Emilia Clarke, Himesh Patel, David Tennant, David Thewlis, Gemma Arterton, Ariyon Bakare, Joe Sugg, Hugh Bonneville, Rob Brydon, Peter Serafinowicz, Julie Atherton, Florian Westermann and Toby Genkel Distributor: Viva Kids
This animated film, adapted from “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” (2001) by Terry Pratchett, the twenty-eighth book in his “Discworld” series (and the first aimed at children rather than “young adults”), is a fractured fairy-tale in the vein of the “Shrek” series. With a script by Terry Rossio, who penned the original “Shrek” (as well as Disney’s “Aladdin”), it’s a droll send-up of the Pied Piper fable with more than a touch of the macabre added to the mix.
The title character is a smug, conniving, self-important cat voiced by Hugh Laurie in preening tones. Maurice (who hates to be addressed as Morris) heads a ragtag team of talking mice that he leads from town to town to frighten the locals into paying for the services of his faux piper Keith (Himesh Patel), who tweets a little tune the mice obligingly pretend to be hypnotized by. Their work done in one hamlet, they’re off to another.
The rodents have agreed to be a part of Maurice’s scheme because their prophet Dangerous Beans (David Tennant) promises they’re on their way to a paradisiacal island, as foretold in their special book, “Mr. Bunny Has an Adventure,” with pastel-colored illustrations foretelling a world where all animals and humans live together in blissful harmony. The crew includes a blustery leader called Darktan (Ariyon Bakare), top-hat-wearing tap dancer Sardines (Joe Sugg), darling Nourishing (Julie Atherton) and sweet Peaches (Gemma Arterton), among others.
Maurice’s plan hits a roadblock, however, in the trading town of Bad Blintz, where they find neither mice nor food. Supposedly the place has been cleared of rodents by two scruffy rat catchers (voiced by directors Toby Genkel and Florian Westermann) working for a mysterious cloaked figure called Boss Man (David Thewlis). But Maurice and Keith find the situation inexplicable. In this they’re in agreement with Malicia (Emilia Clarke), daughter of the mayor (Hugh Bonneville) and from the start the film’s narrator, who periodically breaks the fourth wall by informing us of the meaning of such narrative mechanisms as framing devices, foreshadowing and flashbacks. Now she joins the action directly, prodding the newcomers to uncover what’s really going on in the town and taking a forceful lead role herself.
A cascade of adventures follows, with the real Pied Piper (Rob Brydon) showing up as a retired but decidedly malevolent figure and even the Grim Reaper (Peter Serafinowicz) making an appearance to query Maurice, as he did Puss in Boots in the recent “Last Wish,” about how many of his feline nine lives are left to expend. That’s part of a momentous change in the originally self-serving cat’s attitude toward his human and rodent comrades-in-arms. The true identity of the Big Boss, and his gruesome plans for town and country, are also revealed but, of course, thwarted.
Piling subplot on subplot and switching among them rapidly while also undermining the narrative flow with Malicia and Maurice’s sharing their observations about how things are going with the audience, the movie can get confusing, and in fact it never fully explicates what’s been going on and why. (You have to appreciate the difficulty of the task editor Friedolin Dreesen was given in tying it all together.)
But the pleasant if hardly groundbreaking animation (with Maurice resembling a Cheshire Cat and the various mice cleverly differentiated), attractive backgrounds (Heiko Hentschel served as both production designer and art director), nifty score by Tom Howe (complete with an opening musical number in which Maurice does a version of Professor Harold Hill’s “Trouble”) and solid voice work by a starry cast more than make up for the occasional stumble. Taken altogether, this is a sprightly addition to the fractured fairytale genre with some dark undercurrents that add a ghoulish note to Pratchett’s Grimm-like concoction without getting too scary for tykes. If the result sometimes comes across as a mite self-satisfied in its self-referential asides, it might not be up to “Ratatouille” but still has a good deal to be satisfied about.
It would be a pity if, amid the flow of better-advertised family movies, “The Amazing Maurice” got lost in the shuffle. Though not without flaws, it’s better than most, and should amuse both kids and adults.