In the 20-plus years since “Shrek” burned up the box office, the fairytale with a postmodern twist has become such a standardized genre, one wonders whether kids might be slightly thrown by one that plays out completely in earnest. They aren’t about to be tested in that regard by “The Amazing Maurice,” a loose, goofy riff on The Pied Piper of Hamelin that takes every available opportunity to draw viewers’ attention to the traditions being broken, or at least irreverently lampshaded. But courtesy of source material by offbeat fantasy maestro Terry Pratchett, it’s genuinely eccentric enough — with its sly talking cat, intrepid band of gold-hearted rats and chronic aversion to keeping the fourth wall intact — to come off as charming rather than smarmy.
Pratchett’s sensibility fuses comfortably with that of veteran screenwriter Terry Rossio — the man behind “Shrek,” among other blockbusters — in a film that tilts slightly younger and lighter than the former’s novel “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents,” which was itself a juvenile diversion within the author’s dense, baroquely comic Discworld fantasy universe. If the innocuous, sunny-bright animation style of director Toby Genkel’s film isn’t quite up to the sophistication of the storytelling, it should carry very young viewers through the more arch passages here — those that ensure accompanying parents won’t be bored either. With the film having already opened simultaneously in theaters and on streaming in the U.K. last December, a recent Sundance premiere slot lends “Maurice” an additional gloss of credibility before it reaches audiences Stateside this week.
Not too much, however: The fundamental silliness of this enterprise is very much the point, beginning with a introductory song-and-dance number in which the eponymous ginger tomcat (urbanely voiced by Hugh Laurie) half-raps as he warns an audience of gormless human medieval villagers about the plague of rats descending on them. It’s a well-rehearsed number, having been performed repeatedly as part of a neat grift run by Maurice, the aforementioned rodents and boyish piccolo player Keith (Himesh Patel): Know-it-all cat warns panicked communities about oncoming plague, rats duly invade, pied piper coaxes them all out of town for a tidy sum.
As the mastermind behind this scheme, Maurice is very nearly as pleased with himself as the film’s precocious narrator Malicia (Emilia Clarke), a sparky bookworm well-versed in the traditions and tropes of classic storytelling, and liable to point them out every time her own tale subverts them. “That’s the beauty of a framing device,” she tells us upfront. “I can tell you things about this story you wouldn’t otherwise know.” Young viewers may be tickled by such heavily explained metatextuality, though it wears a little thin with frequent repetition: It’s a relief when Malicia, in a nifty merging of dimensions, shows up as a character in the story at hand, and gets something else to do.
She turns out to be Maurice and co.’s one human ally in the next target they set their sights on: a grand-looking market town that appears, upon closer inspection, to have already been hit by a genuine plague of some variety, since there’s not a scrap of food to be found in the place. The truth behind this famine, and the sinister faceless despot (David Thewlis) who has the town under his thumb, serve as the basis for a mystery that in turn is merely a framework for a succession of knockabout setpieces, egged on by Tom Howe’s appropriately hyperactive score.
As assorted scrapes and mishaps wind up separating our motley crew into three factions — cat, rats and humans — the rodents emerge a clear winner, gifted all the film’s best lines, sight gags, tap-dance routines and most lovable individual characters. Chief among them is their valiant, onesie-wearing spiritual leader of sorts, named Dangerous Beans — a convoluted explanation is given, typical of Pratchett’s taste for rambling shaggy-dog asides — and winningly voiced by David Tennant.
Keith and Malicia are comparatively drippy company on their own; Maurice, if not quite as amazing a hero as his moniker promises, is a pleasingly sardonic presence who occasionally cuts through the film’s cuteness with his own above-it-all commentary. (What else should we expect from a cat?) A secondary framing device, charting this madcap narrative against the more genteel storytelling of a Beatrix Potter-style picture-book, is both elastically clever in concept and slightly cluttering in execution — though its yellowed, old-school, seemingly handcrafted illustration style is more inviting than the bulbous digital imagery of the main storyline. In terms of character design, it’s again the plucky vermin, with their scrap-material outfits and sweetly mournful bucktoothed features, who come out on top: Don’t tell the smooth feline operator in the title role, but in this case, it’s very much the rats who get the cream.