Movie Review: “The Amazing Maurice” Hustles Up Rat Infestation Scams, and a Great British Cast of Voices

The Carnegie award-winning children’s novel “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” makes its way to the screen more or less intact in a delightful and sometimes droll British animated film, “The Amazing Maurice.”

Created originally for Sky TV in the UK but coming to theaters in the US via Viva Kids, it features Hugh Laurie as the voice of the “sentient cat” who ate the wrong thing and learned to talk and run a Big Con the length and breadth of what appears to be 18th century Britain.

Can you imagine Hugh Laurie as “The Music Man?” Of course you can, right here in Liverpool City!

The rotund tabby — funny character design — shows up in a town unchanged since the Tudors and gives the locals the hard sell spiel about “rat INFESTATION,” romping through taverns and barns crawling with rodents, rhyming couplets with a carnival barker’s zeal. Friends, you have TROUBLE.

Surely “Amazing Maurice” is the answer to the infestation?

“Well, I am good, it’s true, but no no NO! One cat will NEVER do!”

There’s nothing for it but for his friend the piper, Keith (Himesh Patel) to be summoned and hired, leading the rats to the riverside with his mesmerizing tune.

When the locals have paid up, the rats swim ashore downstream and Maurice gives everybody his cut.

These rats are THESPIANS, with the hammy Sardines (Joe Sugg) doing the old soft shoe, and Peaches (Gemma Arterton) selling the whole transfixed by the piper shtick. Darktan (Ariyon Bakare) organizes everybody like a rat sergeant or rat union shop steward, and wise Dangerous Beans (David Tennant) preaches of the “island paradise” they will escape to, as rats who know how to talk and understand their fate in the company of humans must do.

But the daughter (Emilia Clarke) of the mayor (Hugh Bonneville) of their latest fleeced-town figures out the truth and gets mixed-up in more complicated affairs in the next town, where a King Rat (David Thewlis) runs the food-stealing racket, and is plotting a rat take-over that will displace their human tormentors forever.

This Anglo-German production features clever, stylized and angular Burton/Henry Selick “Nightmare Before Christmas/Coraline/Corpse Bride” character design.

It’s a cute story, with elements of “The Music Man” and visual settings from “Flushed Away.” The action sequences have a Tex Avery-lite energy, and the heavy use of over-sized/in-your-face closeups give the comic moments a lift that’s sorely needed.

But the cleverest thing about it might be teaching children, the primary audience for this animated comedy, the basics of story structure.

Malicia (Clarke), our narrator explains the “framing device” that her narration encompasses, and pauses to define “foreshadowing” in a story — filmed or otherwise — as “a kind of promise to you (the viewer), letting you know that if you keep with the story, it’s going to get ugly!”

Malicia injects herself into the action of this tale, paired-up with the piper Kevin as they try to steal a better instrument from the REAL Pied Piper (Rob Brydon), who isn’t having it.

“If you don’t turn your life into a story,” the ever-dramatic Malicia warns timid Kevin, “You become part of someone ELSE’s story!”

But uh, stories and fairytale adventures being what they are, what’s she see in the future for her and Kevin? Because Kevin wants to know.

“You’re not handsome enough for a ‘love interest,’ and you’re not funny enough for comic relief.”

She’ll have to think about that, in other words.

A bit of history tossed in — rats subjected to “the pit,” where “ratter” terriers were unleashed on them and bets taken on how many rats they could kill in a minute. Recreating that gives one pause, considering the audience, but it also raises the stakes and makes for a fine comical rats-vs-terriers fight sequence.

“The Amazing Maurice” trips along for some of its length, and pauses a bit too much in other places, without quite enough giggles to fill its 93 minutes. It could have used a bit more of self-centered, self-serving Maurice, a cat burning through his nine lives and in need of a conscience to go with his human-like cunning, acquired, after a fashion, exactly the way the rats learned to speak and think — dining on rubbish at a magician’s garbage dump.

But even if it’s not wholly “amazing,” “Maurice” is close enough, a flip and fun film about a rodent conspiracy, rats who “plan” vs” “rats who “dream,” and a cat who corrects everybody’s pronunciation of his name, not the British “Morris,” but “Mau-REESE,” the way God and Steve Miller intended.

Rating: PG, mild toilet humor

Cast: The voices of Hugh Laurie, Emilia Clarke, Himesh Patel, David Tennant, Gemma Arterton, Ariyon Bakare, Rob Brydon, David Thewlis and Hugh Bonneville.

Credits: Directed by Toby Genkel and Florian Westermann, scripted by Terry Rossio, Robert Chandler and Toby Genkel, based on the novel by Terry Pratchett. A Viva Kids release, a Sky Animation film.

Running time: 1:33


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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