‘The Amazing Morris’ review: A spry British animated romp4 min read
In the more than 20 years since “Shrek” lit up the box office, the fairy tale with a postmodern twist has become such a standard genre, one wonders if kids might be a little thrown by one that’s played so earnestly. They won’t be tested in this regard by “The Amazing Morris,” a loose, goofy riff on Hamelin’s The Pied Piper that takes every available opportunity to call the audience’s attention to traditions that are broken, or at least lampshaded unexpectedly. . But courtesy of offbeat fantasy maestro Terry Pratchett’s source material, it’s genuinely quirky enough — with its sly talking cat, fearless band of golden-hearted rats and lingering hatred for keeping the fourth wall intact — to come off as charming rather than smart.
Pratchett’s sensibilities blend comfortably with veteran screenwriter Terry Rossio — the man behind “Shrek,” among other blockbusters — in a film that leans a bit younger and lighter than the former’s novel “The Amazing Morris and His Educated Rodents,” which itself was one of the author’s denser , a teenage diversion within the baroque comic Discworld fantasy universe. If director Toby Jenkel’s film’s innocent, sunny animation style doesn’t match the sophistication of the storytelling, it’ll get very young viewers here with more arc passages — ones that make sure parents won’t be bored. The film already opened simultaneously in theaters and streaming in the U.K. last December, with a recent Sundance premiere slot lending “Morris” an extra gloss of credibility before it hits Stateside audiences this week.
Not much, however: the basic silliness of this venture is very much the point, starting with an opening song-and-dance number in which the eponymous Ginger Tomcat (voiced by an urbane Hugh Laurie) half-raps as he warns the audience of a rat epidemic descending upon them. Medieval villagers are naive people. It’s a well-rehearsed number, performed over and over again as part of a neat grift orchestrated by Morris, the aforementioned rat, and the boy piccolo player Keith (Himesh Patel): Know that the cat warns the panicked community of an impending plague, the rat duly attacks, Pied. Piper takes them all out of town for a tidy sum.
As the mastermind behind the scheme, Morris is very pleased with herself as the film’s precocious narrator Malicia (Emilia Clarke), a snarky bookworm well versed in classic storytelling traditions and tropes and liable to point them out every time. His own story upsets them. “That’s the beauty of a framing device,” she tells us up front. “I can tell you something about this story that you wouldn’t know otherwise.” Younger viewers may be tickled by such heavily interpreted metatextuality, though it wears thin with frequent repetition: it’s a relief when Malicea, in a nifty mix of dimensions, appears as a character in the story and gets something else.
He becomes a humanitarian ally to Maurice and Co. as they set their sights on the next target: a huge-looking market town that, upon closer inspection, is already infested with an actual plague of some variety, since the place has no scraps of food. The truth behind this famine, and the fearsome faceless dictator (David Thewlis) who has the city under his thumb, serves as the basis for a mystery that is ultimately just a framework for the increasingly knockout setpieces precisely by Tom Howe. Hyperactive score.
A variety of scrapes and mishaps split our motley crew into three — cats, mice, and humans — with the mice emerging as the clear winner, delivering the film’s best lines, sight gags, tap-dance routines, and most endearing individual characters. Chief among them is their brave, sort-of spiritual leader, named Dangerous Beans — given a complex interpretation, characteristic of Pratchett’s taste for sauntering stray dogs aside — and voiced winningly by David Tennant.
Keith and Malicia are relatively their own drippy company; Morris, if not as amazing a hero as his moniker promises, is a delightfully sardonic presence who occasionally cuts through the film’s wit with his own above-the-line comments. (What else should we expect from a cat?) A secondary framing device, charting this madcap narrative against the more polite storytelling of a Beatrix Potter-style picture-book, resiliently clever in concept and slightly chaotic in execution — though it yellow , the old-school, seemingly handcrafted illustration style is more inviting than the bulbous digital imagery of the original story. In terms of character design, it’s again the miserable insects, with their scrap-material clothing and sweetly sad bucktooth features, who come out on top: don’t tell the smooth cat operator in the title role, but in this case it’s a lot of rats who get the cream.