There’s an international cultural swap that takes place at the start of each year; in the UK, we import a US children’s animation for the lucrative half-term holiday, unusually one that was popular in the States over Thanksgiving. Meanwhile in the US, they import a British family film that opened over Christmas; it’s in this slot that the infamous Paddington 2 made a middling $40 million in the US. This year another hopeful arrives in the form of The Amazing Maurice, a cut-above-the-norm animation based on the works of British writer Terry Pratchett.
The late Pratchett remains one of Britain’s most beloved fantasy authors, something of a link between Douglas Adams and JK Rowling, but very much his own thing. Attempts to film his work have struggled to catch his unique tone, but The Amazing Maurice wisely zeroes on one of his most accessible texts, and hits the spot more often than not. Voiced by Hugh Laurie, Maurice is a sly cat who is working a fake news scam; together with some talking rats, they infest a local neighbourhood, then organise a financial tribute to an ersatz pied piper called Keith (Himesh Patel) to take the rats away. This Skin Game scam does them proud for a while, but the authorities are soon onto them, and the intervention of the dreaded Rat King puts them all in grave danger…
The Amazing Maurice, like the titular character, is a class act; there’s no fart jokes, no grating pop culture references or inappropriate tunes, just Pratchett’s agreeably caustic view of society, filtered through the script by Terry Rossio and the vision of director Toby Genkel. This is an ideal movie for kids transitioning from stories about animals to people; there’s a whole meta sub-narrative involving Emilia Clarke as the bookish Malicia, who constantly points out the difference between storybook narratives and the real thing. ‘In fairly tales, when they get hurt, it’s just a word…’ one character complains, while Malacia complains of tales with ‘no subtext and no social commentary.’
While Pratchett remains under-served away from the printed page, The Amazing Maurice should please fans, with an avuncular cameo from the signature character of Death (‘Busy day?’ he enquires in an ideal voice that can only be Peter Serafinowicz), and a positive ending in which ‘people and animals CAN live in harmony’. But it should also be noted that this story does have an edge; the business of rat coursing is rather disturbing to see. This isn’t the kind of happy-happy-joy-joy story which has no fatalities; six chatty rats are killed in a matter of seconds in one scene that might upset tiny kids. The Amazing Maurice is one of the better attempts so far to capture the zesty tone of Pratchett’s work, turning storybook clichés inside out in a way that should appeal to inquiring minds, and providing a stimulating enough story for children of all ages.
The Amazing Maurice hits US theatres Feb 3 2023. Thanks to Viva for advance access.