The late Sir Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld books epitomized his literary genius of irony and paradox in the realm of fantasy stories, wrote that Discworld was “relentlessly, solidly logical.” He added, “The reason it is fantasy is that it is logical about the wrong things, about those parts of human experience where, by tacit agreement, we don’t use logic because it doesn’t work properly.”
Translated plainly, Pratchett created a literary amusement park where he ingeniously upended, reordered and retold fairy tales and myths, paying equal attention to culture in its most popular and intellectual forms. Thus, his protagonists became unconventional heroes and he leveraged predictable tropes, cliches and stereotypes by turning them on their head. With his books selling more than 100 million copies all over the world, he succeeded, especially with children readers who found his stories so appealing that they found their lifetime love of books.
One of Pratchett’s stories was The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, which upended and recast The Pied Piper of Hamelin legend. The book is rendered exquisitely, filled with the genuine sense of the Pratchett creative spirit, in an exceptional Sundance premiere film, The Amazing Maurice. Directed by Toby Genkel with co-director Florian Westermann, the film, with its superb 3-D animation, is part of the Sundance Kid slate. But, anyone who has ever read a Discworld story also will be delighted to reconnect with Pratchett’s literary magic in this rigorously faithful adaptation.
The contours of the story will sound familiar: Maurice is a streetwise cat who believes he has found a money-making scam that will dupe everyone. He has found a naive kid (Keith) who can play a pipe and they conjure a plot to have the unsuspecting piper lead the rats out of town. The strange thing is that the cat is in cahoots with the rats who are educated, literate and know how to outsmart humans who are repulsed by them. But, in the town of Bad Blintz, the con game falls apart, where Maurice and Keith discover that food has disappeared but there are no signs of rats. And, then, the obsessively curious Malicia, the mayor’s daughter, emerges, who quickly figures out the con game that Maurice has concocted.
The film captures the marvelous Pratchett narrative brand of Discworld’s paradox and irony so well. Malicia, who also drops informative nuggets about the functions of literary devices in story telling with plain clarity as a narrator, has been reading to the audience a story titled Mr. Bunnsy Has An Adventure. Indeed, the story has inspired one of the rats — Dangerous Beans — to leave behind the con game for a higher purpose. It becomes Dangerous Beans’ quest for the rats to seek the holy land where rats and humans could coexist peacefully. Fascinated by the rats’ intelligence and ability to speak eloquently and Maurice’s skills for gaming and scheming, Malicia is convinced that they can help solve the mystery of the disappearing food. Meanwhile, the Rat King is the enemy they must overcome, especially if the rats are to resist his power to make them servants to his interests.
The Amazing Maurice excels in finding that perfect balance between pure joyful entertainment and the unpretentious yet sophisticated tone that treats, in particular, the younger audience as intelligent viewers who know how to appreciate a story of sincere and real substance. The effervescent, quick comic rhythms, as evidenced in the opening scene in the town marketplace with the rats in full mischief mode, mesh with the darker elements of the perils that Keith, Maurice, Malicia and the rats must overcome. The wit includes smart popular pop culture references including the animated classic Ratatouille. Viewers will see rats tap dancing in butter who brazenly blow raspberries at the horrified people in the town square.
There are heavy hitters on all levels for the production (Ulysses Filmproduktion and Cantilever Media). An experienced animation director who has worked with Ulysses Films on several projects, Genkel directed award-winning films such as Richard the Stork (2017) and Ooops! Noah is gone… (2015). He also was a a storyboard artist and designer for numerous animated films, Terry Rossio, a screenwriter who has been associated with other animated films that have been blockbuster box office successes, adapted the Pratchett original. His credits include Aladdin, Shrek and all five Pirates of the Caribbean films. Handling character design, Carter Goodrich has a distinguished portfolio with films including Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Shrek, Spirit, Sinbad, Open Season and, of course, Ratatouille. The cast includes top stars: House’s Hugh Laurie is the voice actor for Maurice and Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke is the voice actor for Malicia while Yesterday’s Himesh Patel voices the character of Keith, the piper whom Maurice recruits. Doctor Who’s David Tennant is Dangerous Beans. The animation pops on the screen, courtesy of Studio Rakete and Red Star.
The project was conceived in 2015, as Emely Christians, one of the three producers, explains in an interview with The Utah Review. It was not an easy task to secure the rights for the adaptation. A few years before Pratchett died in 2015, he established Narrativia to handle all exclusive multimedia and merchandising rights to all of his literary output. Representatives handling the late author’s estate have been scrupulous about their obligations. The Amazing Maurice was only the second collaboration approved. “They had seen another of our European projects and they were impressed by the quality. Toby [Genkel] came on board very quickly, as did Terry [Rossio], who wrote the script,” Christians explains.
Robert Chandler, also a producer, added that Rossio’s script “immediately came alive on the page and read so beautifully,” capturing Pratchett’s voice and his craft at subverting genre. Most notably, The Amazing Maurice fulfills the complex milestones Pratchett cultivated in his stories, where he created simultaneously existing parodies of a fantasy literary realm and of our ordinary functioning world. The approach elucidates the possibility to engage with both worlds and achieve the ideal that the character Dangerous Beans envisions, where rats and humans could live together without fear or repulsion.
It was a precedent that Narrativa set in giving its okay. “We had to treat it right, acknowledging how intimidating it could be to properly adapt a story from one of the greatest writers in his literary genre,” Genkel adds. “Collectively, we said, ‘Now we better don’t screw it up.’ It can be easy to freeze and be in awe of a big name such as Sir Pratchett. Rossio nailed it on the head and wherever there were changes from the original, he did them respectfully with an eye on keeping the rhythm and cadence of the story. And, hearing some of the reactions, we heard that we captured the spirit.” Certainly, with a literary figure like Pratchett, hardcore fans will scrutinize the film with a fine-toothed comb to uncover any small points that differ from the original text. But, also, the film succeeds in sparking a new generation of families and their children to venture deeper into the 41 novels comprising Pratchett’s Discworld.
The film will be released in theaters in February, after Sundance. more information on additional screenings and other films at the festival, see the Sundance website.