There’s almost nothing of the Shrek films in Dreamworks new spin-off, Puss in Boots. Since that franchise has long since devolved into easy pop culture—and poop culture—references, this is a decidedly good thing. Puss surprises by being a much better movie than any of the Shrek films; a frothy, fun adventure that combines the world of childhood fairy tales with the swashbuckling of Zorro. There’s a refreshing return to the basics here, with a playful and charming trio of performances by Antonio Banderas as Puss, Salma Hayek as the feline thief Kitty Softpaws, and Zach Galifinakis as Puss’ estranged ‘brother’ Humpty Dumpty.
Director Chris Miller throws off the cheap jokes and unnecessary frat humor in favor of a more straight-forward story bursting with wit and energy, and a more sophisticated visual palette that compliments the exciting action scenes. Best of all, this Boots is a film for younger audiences that parents need not shun for fear of inappropriateness or boredom. Although it retains the fairy tale references of Shrek, Puss adopts a completely different kind of setting from Far, Far Away. Not unlike this year’s earlier Rango, there’s the texture of a Spanish-flavored Old Hollywood epic, with plenty of mythic overtones and feisty mariachi music. For cat lovers, there’s an effort here to build that anthropomorphic feline culture directly into a more historically recognizable version of Spain, complete with conquistadors and missions that house hungry orphans.
Here, the gallant gato has been set up as a mysterious outlaw, running from a past where he’s been wrongly accused of a crime and looking to set it right by finding those magic beans that lead to Jack’s beanstalk. The road to those magic beans leads Puss back to an old friend, now nemesis, Humpty, who shares a rich back-story with the sword-swinging tabby and has brought a new acquaintance into the mix—Kitty Softpaws, a cat burglar who can swipe anything without alerting attention.
Puss doesn’t trust Humpty, but Kitty—like a dame from a 40’s noir—reels him in and the three set off together to steal back the beans from a pair of brutish bandits, Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), who hope that procuring the golden goose will finally let them retire and raise their litter of piglets in peace. Distractions, dangers and double-crosses come into play, and before you know it, Puss is back in his hometown of San Marco, preparing to defend it against a Godzilla-sized mother goose intent on reclaiming her gosling. This is silliness that has to be seen to be properly believed. That it works is just icing on this particular cake.
Banderas is in top form, more relaxed and assertive a presence here than he was in Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (and even there, he was quite good). Working closely with the animators who bring Puss to life, Banderas imbues him with a personality that goes beyond the one-note gag that he’s just a kitty-kat version of Banderas’ own take on Zorro. Without the need to jump through several stale jokes, Puss becomes a character of tarnished nobility and fiery passion, both of those elements toned down for younger audiences but captured with the same heart that drove Martin Campbell’s 1998 The Mask of Zorro. Hayek is a wonderful foil for him, and if her Kitty has her paws in more than she’s letting on, the chemistry she channels with Banderas puts all questions of the plot out of mind for a bit. It’s just to watch the way the animators try and keep up with the emotional dance these two perform. What the artists do come up with are a series of rooftop fight scenes and actual dance battles—watch out for the ‘litter box’—that have such exceptional choreography I found myself stunned by the usually tiresome element of 3D.
Galifanakis is the member of the cast I wasn’t initially sold on, and his Humpty seems like an odd fit on this particular tale, his Anglo Egghead sticking out like a sore thumb at first. But this Humpty is supposed to be an outsider, an orphan with a penchant for invention and big day-dreaming, whose criminal life constantly upends his better nature. Galifinakis gets that, and instead of spinning tired comedic riffs he focuses his energy on making us believe the inner hurting yolk of an egg gone bad. Together, Miller and the scriptwriters do some surprising and effective things with the team dynamic. You see where the story is going, but you follow and are surprised by how well it plays out.
Visually, this is the best looking of the films related to this universe. It’s not just the fact that technology has improved, it’s the texture, detail and structure of the images that have improved along with it. I noticed Guillermo Del Toro’s name as producer (his voice is in the film too) on this film and also the recent Dreamworks endeavors of Kung-Fu Panda 2 and Megamind. Although I doubt his involvement was great, you can see some of the same inventiveness and fidelity to environment that shows up in his work here in Puss. When Puss, Kitty and Humpty go up the beanstalk, to the giant’s castle, it’s like walking around in a multi-faceted Greg Hildebrant illustration. That monstrous goose is both cute and menacingly saurian at the same time. The carriage that ferries Jack and Jill about is pulled by a team of wild boar that feel like they ran right out of a medieval woodcarving. Puss’ dance scenes are whirling dervishes of sound, color and feeling. This is a really dazzling picture on the visual front.
I enjoyed Puss in Boots quite a bit, and suspect that most families that go out to it will too. This is a character who has great potential for future stories, so long as those stories continue to maintain the discipline towards storytelling Miller demonstrates here. At a point, I wasn’t as invested this particular adventure as I was in the general excitement generated by the character. However, this isn’t a flaw. The story is most likely deeply engaging for very young children—far more so than the convoluted Cars 2—and when it loses us adults it isn’t because of some failure to engage us, but because it has slipped into a less fearsome dreamland aimed at ensnaring a younger demographic. It’s neither too hot nor too cold, but I suspect for a whole generation of soon to be new, adoring fans, it’s just right.