The character of Puss in Boots has been a show-stealer ever since he was first introduced in Shrek 2 back in 2004, and he became the increasingly lacklustre franchise’s sole highlight throughout the misfires of Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After. Spiritedly voiced by Antonio Banderas, Puss is a stroke of screenwriting genius; a swashbuckling action hero in the Zorro mould distinguished by his typical feline instincts and adorable look. Puss’ popularity guaranteed a solo starring vehicle for the adventurous kitty, which has now arrived in the form of 2011’s Puss in Boots after years of rumours (it was originally planned as a direct-to-DVD adventure). It’s always a risk to promote a supporting character to a protagonist, but this picture proves that Puss is more than capable of carrying his own feature. Although the storytelling is a bit leaden, Puss in Boots is full of hilarious isolated antics, making this easily superior to the latter three films of the Shrek franchise.
Set many years before he met Shrek and Donkey, Puss in Boots (Banderas) is an outlaw constantly on the move, romancing feminine felines and getting into trouble everywhere he goes. Learning that fugitives Jack (Thornton) and Jill (Sedaris) are in possession of the mythical “magic beans”, Puss investigates, only to find that childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Galifianakis) and infamous cat burglar Kitty Softpaws (Hayek) are after the same prize. With the magic beans holding the key to the golden egg-laying goose, Puss agrees to team up with the shady pair, thus giving Humpty a way for him to atone for his past misdeeds. Hence, the unlikely trio set off across the dusty desert landscape in hot pursuit of Jack and Jill.
While Puss in Boots is technically a prequel to Shrek 2, the picture stands alone from Shrek’s world in just about every imaginable way. Shrek the Third director Chris Miller was in the driving seat here, but this flick has a completely different tone and vibe, making it a fresh-feeling spin-off to a stale series. The picture is more stylistically similar to Rango, an earlier 2011 animated movie which called for Spaghetti Western clichés to be played out by desert creatures. Likewise, Puss in Boots is a fairly Zorro-esque action-adventure populated by cartoon fairytale characters. And on top of the swashbuckler/Zorro vibe, the picture contains a hint of Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi movies (an early scene in a bar recalls Banderas’ introductions in those films, and Salma Hayek was the love interest). Heck, even a smidge of Sergio Leone influence appears to be present here, with Henry Jackson’s Morricone-inspired score and some extreme close-ups. Nevertheless, Puss in Boots has its flaws. The storytelling feels fairly direct-to-DVD, and it should have given Puss a bit more room to cut loose. Not to mention, this is the very definition of shallow entertainment: there’s not a lot of heart here.
It has become a cliché to state how visually magnificent big-budget animated movies are, so here’s the token appraisal for Puss in Boots: it’s a richly-detailed visual delight with a well-judged colour palette. This reviewer didn’t view the film in 3-D, but several big action set-pieces would look spectacular with an extra dimension. Speaking of the action, the set-pieces are indeed terrific. Puss in Boots is more of a Saturday afternoon matinee adventure yarn than an outright comedy, so the pace is quick and the action is both satisfying and plentiful. There are a lot of laughs to be had, too. No gags here will make you laugh till you cry, but there are several belly-laughs nevertheless, and the flick never stoops to infantile humour or potty jokes. Heck, the script is even mostly free of stale pop culture jokes (though there’s a baffling Fight Club reference). The comedy is mainly derived from observations of cat behaviour. For instance, the flick highlights a cat’s ability to lure people into submission by looking adorable and innocent. It’s also side-splitting to watch Puss as he goes from sophisticated to primitive when caught off-guard by a beam of light. Indeed, cat people will adore Puss in Boots and all of its inside jokes about their favourite domestic animal.
As he proved in the Shrek movies, Antonio Banderas was born to voice this character. With his Spanish-flavoured accent and charismatic line deliveries, Banderas is perfectly-suited for the cat version of Zorro, and was not shy about parodying his past performances in the Zorro pictures and the Mariachi series. Meanwhile, Salma Hayek effortlessly reignites her chemistry with Banderas from their prior films together, and is a perfect fit for Puss’ skilled lady love. In an unusually restrained performance, Zach Galifianakis is also surprisingly good as the hapless Humpty Dumpty. Unfortunately, though, the villainous Jack and Jill are incredibly underused – Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris barely register in the roles, which is a bit of a shame. Interestingly, executive producer Guillermo del Toro (a.k.a. director of Pan’s Labyrinth and other big movies) has a cameo role here, as well.
Puss in Boots has its flaws, but this slice of DreamWorks animation is head-over-heels better than Pixar’s 2011 project, Cars 2. Truth is, Cars 2 was drab, heartless and uncreative, while Puss in Boots is fun, funny, entertaining, exciting and visually spectacular. Perhaps the failure of Cars 2 and the triumph of Puss in Boots is a good thing, as it shows that DreamWorks is getting better, and it may motivate Pixar to work harder to retain their place at the top of the animation ladder. Sure, a more carefree approach might have permitted Puss in Boots to become a full-blown laugh riot, but it’s hard to walk away unsatisfied with Puss’ first solo adventure. A huge improvement over Shrek Forever After, the movie shows just how far DreamWorks has come in terms of raising their own personal bar.