Meows and machismo combine in an inspired animated romp
Puss in Boots, the new animated film from Dreamworks, may spring from the creative loins of the Shrek series but the lovably lumpy green ogre is nowhere to be found in the spin-off. It was a wise choice on the part of the filmmaking team led by director Chris Miller. By creating a totally self-contained story featuring the meowing machismo hero voiced by Antonio Banderas, the filmmakers were able to mostly free themselves from the negative energy created by the last few films in the Shrek series — a franchise that had increasingly become over-bloated and undercooked.
Puss in Boots, on the other hand, is frequently hilarious, surprisingly emotionally resonant at times and, most importantly, a lot of fun. With Banderas at the masthead of this fact paced, classically-influenced fairy tale, the film keeps an irreverent and modern approach to its storytelling and humor without falling into the trap of so many of the early Dreamworks Animation films and filling its coffers with an overabundances of pop culture references.
No knowledge of the Shrek series is needed to enjoy the story-heavy film. The team of writers behind Puss in Boots created a totally self-contained tale that manages to capture everything that was likable about the feline anti-hero during his supporting roles in the Shrek films.
When the film picks up, Puss is a swashbuckling thief looking for a new score. When he hears about a pair of outlaws in possession of the legendary magic beans (the same ones from the classic tale of Jack and the Beanstalk), Puss in Boots sets off to claim the one prize he has spent his entire life searching for. Fairly soon into his quest he is reunited with childhood friend Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis in a surprisingly restrained and poignant role). It was Humpty Dumpty that first filled Puss’ head with dreams of the kind of loot that was waiting at the end of a magic beanstalk and it was their childhood obsession with the beans that ultimately formed a near irreparable wedge in their friendship. Now, joined by the female cat burglar Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek), Humpty and Puss must put aside old grudges and work together if they want to finally fulfill a childhood fantasy.
Puss in Boots blends together many different fairy tales in much the same way Shrek did ten years ago. Instead of poking fun at the classic tales, however, Puss in Boots celebrates them — weaving together something new and equally exciting. Similar to what Bill Willingham has been doing with his monthly comic book series “Fables,” Puss in Boots takes a modern approach to timeless tales most everybody is familiar with and crafts a new brand new story that feels comfortably familiar but also has that modern edge that today’s kids (and their parents) expect in a cartoon.
For example, the film’s villains are a pair of outlaws named Jack and Jill. Voiced by Billy Bob Thronton and Amy Sedaris, the bandits are given personalities that wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen Brothers movie. Their folksy banter about quitting the thieving business and settling down to raise a family is in sharp contrast to the two’s jack toothed, burly men demeanor. It’s this quirky humor that gives the film a maturity and grace.
The real star of the film, though, is Banderas and Hayek’s chemistry. It’s odd to bring up a word like chemistry in an animated film — especially considering that the two actors might not have even recorded their lines in the same room at the same time — but there’s something undeniably magnetic about seeing the Desperado co-stars back together as a pair of frisky kitties. Both actors are in top shape with their comedy and the sharp script gives them plenty of material to work with.
The film’s animation is top-notch. That said, some of the character designs — particularly for the humans — seem a bit flat compared to the beautiful rendering of the more fantastical creatures. This has a lot to do with the fact that the film is hindered by its attempt to keep in the visual style of a film series that turned ten this year. The fur and texture rendered to bring Puss and his playmates to life is astonishing and one could only wonder what the film would have looked like if the animators had been allowed to break free of the human designs set forth by the Shrek films.
If you’re not absolutely set in your feelings about 3D, Puss in Boots might be a film worth splurging for. The 3D effects are put through the paces — especially as the film stretches its legs during some of the more extreme camera set-ups. During long shots that take audiences on a hawk’s eye view through sprawling landscapes, the film really sells the use of the added dimensionality. The effects create an immersive experience that —while it won’t change your world — is worth a few extra bucks at the box office.
I’ll admit that at first it was surprising to see Guillermo del Toro’s name listed as an executive producer for Puss in Boots. One of the busiest working men in Hollywood, del Toro seemingly has his fingers in over a dozen film pies at any given moment. With Puss in Boots, he not only produces — he also lends his voice to a few characters. When one stops to think about it, though, it’s obvious that del Toro would be attracted to a film like Puss in Boots. The director of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films has always been keen on stories that combine the fantastical with the grounded and Puss in Boots is right up his alley.
There is a surprising tenderness to the story of Puss and Humpty Dumpty that never gets lost amidst the action or the yucks. Galifianakis turns in one of his most human performances — who would have guessed it’d be when he was playing a human-sized egg? There’s a real pathos and sympathy in the role that Galifianakis and the film’s team of animators knocked out of the park.
The film’s charming combination of action, humor and emotional resonance makes Puss in Boots miles better than anything in the Shrek series. Ever.
As much as the first film broke new boundaries in its clever approach to telling a kids’ movie that would still appeal to adults, it is Puss in Boots that more firmly grasps the necessity of a good, solid story to carry the entire package. It’s one thing to be funny but without a solid story behind the jokes, the humor ages quickly. As any parent will admit, it is imperative in a family film to have a story that holds up on multiple viewings and Puss in Boots has the kind of story that will age well in the coming years. It is its narrative backbone that carries Puss in Boots along — helping to create a movie that will not only appeal to the children in the theater but will also hit the hearts of their parents too.
Director: Chris Miller Notable Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Zach Galifianakis Writer(s): Brian Lynch, David H. Steinberg, Tom Wheeler and Jon Zack
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.