Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Amazing Maurice

What's "doing well" in theaters for a movie like The Amazing Maurice these days? I saw it on its fourth weekend at Fresh Pond, in a 34-person auditorium that was maybe half-full, and I'd be surprised if it was ever in any larger rooms.over that time. It probably hung around a little longer because most schools in Massachusetts were on vacation this past week and an extra kid-friendly title for matinees couldn't hurt. Still, given how crazy the turnover often is at Fresh Pond - it's a 10-screen theater that is only the closest place for a fairly small area - it's impressive staying power. Most films like this will have two shows a day for a week and be gone.

But this stuck around, and I've kind of got no idea why. Does the Boston area have an unusual number of anglophiles who will say "hey, that's a Terry Pratchett adaptation, I'm in!" without ever seeing a trailer - and is the fact that Apple is a local chain going to make them more sensitive to that, even if they weren't already the place where this sort of thing opened? Did the trailer play before enough other things there to get that audience's attention, like the trailer for The Magic Flute that played before this one? Was it advertised in some way that I, having no kids and not seeing a lot of ads for anything these days, just missed? Would it have played other theaters if the wasn't down 30-odd screens compared to before the pandemic?

I honestly don't know. And does pulling $3M in qualify as a big windfall for Viva Pictures, whose stuff generally seems to go straight to video? Especially as this could sort of be a multiplier for that business, because people might vaguely remember it being in theaters and treat it more like a real movie. Does it count as an overperformance and maybe get director Toby Genkel a look from the bigger studios?

Perhaps, perhaps not. There's so much reporting on the juggernauts that this far more modest thing doesn't get a lot of talk, and likewise, it's hard to say what counts as "success", especially in the current environment. I suspect that this will wind up doing pretty okay by the standards of non-studio animation - it got seven-digit box office, it will probably sell a few more discs* than usual because Pratchett has fans, and… well, who knows how things go on streaming, although I've got to figure this gives it a little bump.

But I don't know, certainly not well enough to guess as to whether making decent movies at this scale which get this sort of release is sustainable.

* A stereographer is mentioned in the credits, so, yeah, I'd like a 3D release, although I suspect that might only happen in the UK and/or Germany.

The Amazing Maurice

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2023 in Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond/Cambridge #8 (first-run, DCP)

Bold move, small studio, releasing your animated film with a taking orange cat while Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is still in theaters! For all that many may look at this and see an off- brand knockoff, though, it's very much its own thing and does carve out its own space, feeling like it captures just enough of Terry Pratchett's voice to have a distinct appeal. The Amazing Maurice may be a notch below the big boys in some areas, but it's decent all-ages entertainment.

Maurice (voice of Hugh Laurie), as you may have gathered, is a talking cat, which even in the magical realms of Discworld is fairly unusual. He's got a good racket going, showing up in a town along with a rat infestation, drumming up donations for a piper to lead them away. The piper, Keith (voice of Himesh Patel), is in on it, of course, as are the rats, who can also speak. One, Dangerous Beans (voice of David Tenant), tries to convince them to give up swindling, but Maurice prevails, and they're off to a new town. Something is fishy, though - food in the town disappears immediately, as if treats were stealing it, but there are no ordinary, dumb rodents to be found. They, on the other hand, are discovered by the mayor's daughter Malicia (voice of Emilia Clarke), who was already itching to solve the mystery.

Malicia, to this point, had been the film's narrator, the sort that winks hard at the audience because she knows all the tropes, although she's studied harder than the average hero who has learned everything about life from storybooks (she will teach her audience what a "framing device" is and why it's useful). She's rather a lot, to be honest, right on the edge of being the character who ruins the movie both by being the loudest and potentially making it about spoofing other things rather than telling its own story. Fortunately, the filmmakers are mindful of how they mix and match and otherwise divide attention among their ensemble, so that nobody truly takes over or gets crowded out. It also uses its meta winking to drop something kind of important on an audience of unsuspecting kids.

Mainly, it's funny, with a bunch of fun characters from humans to cats to rats that use their broadness to bounce off each other in fun ways, often set up so that one person can be deadpan about how the other is crazy and vice versa without taking sides. It's a smartly twisted take on how talking animal stories would "really" work, what with the non-talking variety tending to eat each other, that nevertheless isn't truly mean, and it's got a good balance of visual and verbal jokes. It's also one of those British cartoons that draws on a ridiculously deep voice cast: Hugh Laurie is smooth but capable of some barbs as Maurice, Emilia Clarke puts enough glee into Malicia's manic know-it-all nature to make her tolerable, David Tenant captures how Beans is a spiritual leader still trying to understand the world, and Gemma Arterton is the good-hearted but no-nonsense Peaches, just to start.

The animation is actually pretty decent cartooning on a budget probably well below what Disney and DreamWorks spend, and smoother than these second-or-third-tier studios often manage (there's a credit or two for stereography, but it didn't play in 3D locally; there's a sequence or two that would probably look good that way but the film doesn't have the too-obvious parallax one often sees when 3D is a high priority). It's got the sort of character design that doesn't exactly feel identifiable as one thing but also isn't quite its own in a lot of places - lots of Disney faces with Aardman noses and spindly Laika legs. The exception is Maurice himself, where the filmmakers have seemingly worked hard to not make him look too much like any other orange cartoon cat from Garfield to Puss in Boots, and seem not to quite know what to do with his toothy mouth before it's time to remember that cats are predators as well as snobs. There are moments when I wonder if it's a bit of a riff on medieval paintings where you wonder if the artist has only heard cats described, which is an interesting idea, but they're fleeting and wouldn't match up with the conventional design elsewhere.

The story is shaggy at times and screenwriter Terry Rossio maybe finds himself a bit tripped up by the end, and maybe not quite sure just how self-referential this should be, but as a whole, it's pretty good all around. The kids in the audience and their Discworld-fan parents both seemed into it, and I must admit, I wouldn't mind seeing this group tackle Pratchett again, maybe poking at something that has been exhausted a little less than fairy tales.

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