Hugh Laurie and Himesh Patel appear in The Amazing Maurice by Toby Genkel, an official selection of the Kids section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
By Aliese Muhonen
Rats take on unusual roles throughout the animated film world: In some of the greatest examples, we’ve seen them as professional chefs (Ratatouille), and as a tech-forward moving crew (The Secret of NIMH).
The resounding message seems to be that they’re more intelligent than we give them credit for (Los Angeles pest control, please take note).
Thankfully, the rat film market hasn’t reached saturation: Toby Genkel’s The Amazing Maurice is a new and delightful addition to the canon. Based on the beloved children’s fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett, this clever take on “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale features rats as sentient, articulate hustlers led by Maurice, a smooth-talking con cat with a Cheshire grin and a classy accent (courtesy of Hugh Laurie). Partnered with the bumbling human jazz flutist Keith (Himesh Patel), Maurice and the rats run a slick scam in their enchanted land: Convince small villages they’re overrun with rats, then charge a steep rate to oust the infestation.
But at their next gig, someone smells a rat (couldn’t help the pun). The market town’s streets are silent and storefronts empty from famine. And whether it’s the sinister rat catcher, Boss Man (David Thewlis), or the mayor’s meta-commenting, fairy tale–obsessed daughter, Malicia (Emilia Clarke), no one is quite what they seem. The film premiered January 22 in the Kids category.
Like the novel, the story is as much for adults as it is for kids. Deeper, and at times darker themes emerge — groupthink being a standout — though at the post-premiere Q&A Genkel notes that above all, “freedom and democracy and tolerance” are the main messages.
“I can tell you when I read the novel … it really gets under your skin a lot and you think about, ‘Wow, how are you going to get this on screen?’” he says. “Because there were some things in the book that we didn’t feel like we could bring to the screen or it wouldn’t really be a children’s movie. But yes, I think it is totally a children’s movie. It is going to the edge, I admit, but I think what Terry Pratchett also did is taking the kids seriously, not shy[ing] away from certain moments … some uncomfortable moments, and it was our responsibility to find the right balance, which I hope we did.”
The audience concurs, applauding Genkel’s direction and his admission of another theme — the film as a “celebration of storytelling.”
And indeed, the film’s unusual plot conventions will keep viewers guessing. Characters throughout are cheekily self-aware and frequently break the fourth wall, with multiple narrators and an irreverence that Shrek would approve of. Half the fun is wondering what trope they’ll turn on its head next. And the gorgeous animation and clever dialogue can hold their own next to any Disney-Pixar offering.
The Amazing Maurice is an education for children (and a refresher for adults) in the art of storytelling. One could easily see it become a fun teaching supplement for English and writing classes.
And though Pratchett didn’t get to enjoy the film (he passed away in 2015), the spirit of his novel is alive in this adaptation (as is his appearance — look closely at the bust in the mayor’s office).
Pratchett was, as Genkel puts it, a quotemaster: “He [wrote] so many lines that you just want to print on T-shirts.” But the most resonant, in Genkel’s opinion, is one of Malicia’s lines about self-agency. “If you don’t turn your life into a story,” she tells Keith, “you become part of someone else’s story.”
Of the film’s many motifs, Genkel says, “that one really showed; [I wanted] to bring it out to the world … it is such a great message.”