After being milked as second banana to a farting ogre in what seems like umpteen "Shrek" movies, Antonio Banderas' popular Puss in Boots has strayed into a movie of his own. Considering how that franchise has supposedly come to a close, this spin-off is, yes, a crassly commercial method of Dreamworks Animation continuing to generate green from green. But there's a good reason the cat came back to the silver screen in a film all his own as opposed to, say, The Gingerbread Man, Donkey, or Princess Fiona.
Puss in Boots is part Eastwood-ian Man With No Name, part Latin lothario, but all cat. Early in the film, we witness our dashing lead character in action as he coolly takes command of a bar stocked with looming louts and thick-necked thugs. Self-satisfied, he struts out into the night, only to be confronted with an old world equivalent of a zippy laser pointer beam - one with his name on it! And just like that, all that cool warriors' self-assuredness falls away as Puss instantly becomes nothing but what he's been all along - a cat. In this case, a cat frantically trying to catch an uncatchable beam of light - an uncontrollable compulsion for any feline, real or computer animated.
And there you have it, the primary universal joke of the character. His very essence, his very being, is his weakness. Puss in Boots, for all his valiant swaggering and swashbuckling, can be, on the fly, reduced to a common house cat. It is at once simple, obvious, hilarious, clever and universally relatable. After all, who among us has not been done in on occasion by the flaws of our own intrinsic humanity? This is the fundamental concept/conceit at the heart of Puss in Boots, and the key to any continuing viability and appeal of the character. Thankfully, it's something that this movie (boasting executive production credits for Guillermo del Toro and Andrew Adamson, among others) is smart enough to run with.
"Puss in Boots" falls just short of the original "Shrek" in terms of overall solidity, but avoids the pit of pop culture reference overload that the franchise fell into with the admittedly fun "Shrek 2", and never climbed out of. It's sharp and witty enough for adults and children to enjoy alike, even if the comedy takes a backseat to a barrage of nursery rhymed action movie tropes in the final reel. (And there's at least one joke for grown-ups (a quick, veiled pot joke) that may cause parents to squirm just a little.) It's an uneven film that gets off to a great start only to be sidetracked by a lengthy flashback sequence. I've seen it happen to worse movies, ones that couldn't boast such wonderfully plush and colorful animation.
Banderas dominates as Puss in Boots, a character who's skin he lives in quite comfortably. It's a perhaps rare pay-off to Dreamworks Animation's troubling tendency to stock their films with celebrity vocal talent, many of whom have no business being within fifty feet of that recording booth. (We're looking at you Cameron Diaz.) The same compliment, however, cannot be said of female lead Salma Hayek, who, for the first time in her career, is completely flat. No joke, she cannot deliver a joke. On the other hand, professional jokester Zach Galifianakis (in an almost joke-free part) does a respectable job as the dubious Humpty Dumpty, whose great fall was more of a moral one in this universe. Even executive producer del Toro gets in on the action, voicing the important but smaller part of the mustached Comandate.
After stinking up the litter box with a lot of crap features in the past decade, Dreamworks Animation seems to have finally landed on its feet this year, as evidenced by this film and the even better "Kung Fu Panda 2". They're still not in the league of Pixar, but this is credit given where credit is due. "Puss in Boots" is an exciting and clever ball of yarn, even as it makes absolutely no attempt to even resemble the French fairy tale it takes its name from. But it also has the good sense to avoid any gratuitous cameos from other "Shrek" characters, thus allowing "Puss" to stand on it's own two legs as much as possible. It's not purr-fect, but it's also not mangy.
- Jim Tudor
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