Puss in Boots is cute and clever…and nothing more. Perhaps there isn’t much to say about a movie in which not much happens, but what little there is works pretty well under the circumstances. We get some clever fairy tale references, some funny cat gags, and a lot of Antonio Banderas basically playing his lugubrious lothario image to the hilt, which is more sustainably entertaining than you might imagine.
The film is a feature-length spin-off of the Shrek franchise, in which the Puss in Boots character was a highlight of the later installments. One might assume that the shtick would wear thin when stretched out to feature, not unlike a Saturday Night Live character making an awkward big screen transition. But the character’s charm is one of the major reasons Puss in Boots doesn’t completely evaporate into thin air. To the contrary, it is the surrounding story that threatens to sink the film…but Puss saves the day, up to a point.
Apparently, the film is a prequel to the Shrek films, quite an unnecessary factoid that my family noticed quicker than I did. “Does this come before Shrek?” the wife and kids kept asking me, to which my response was, “Does it matter?” And, no, it doesn’t. There are no important nuggets of pre-cursor information that provide foreshadowing or enrichment of the Shrek movies…though I guess, in its way, this film does tell an origin story (maybe it should’ve been called Shrek Origins: Puss in Boots). We learn how this noble lothario feline became the hero he is today…yep.
I’m treading water, I feel. That’s because there really isn’t much to discuss – the movie doesn’t have much meat on its bones. The story, such as it is, blends a handful of fairytale legends in the sort of post-modern adventure mash-up that Shrek invented a decade ago. Thankfully, it’s not overflowing with cynical Hollywood in-jokes like the later installments of the ogre franchise, but it weaves disparate storybook elements together with plenty of good humor but relatively low energy. The titular feline spends the film in pursuit of the infamous “magic beans” – those that can grow the sky-high beanstalk that leads to the giant’s castle, where a goose furnishes the landscape with golden eggs. The beans are currently in possession of outlaws Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, both entirely wasted), and Puss is not the only bandit chasing after them. Puss’ former childhood friend, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), also has his eye on the prize and has hired master thief Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) to help him secure the beans – and to keep our hero in check by engaging him a seductive battle of wits.
The banter between Puss and Kitty crackles appropriately, and we can feel the barely-suppressed smiles in the voice performances of Banderas and Hayek. Plenty of clever gags play off each fairytale character’s legendary trappings, and of course, there are plenty of cat jokes, most of which are more amusing than they have any right to be. But the story plods along, working overtime to twist the fairytale mythology and leaving behind its characters, who start with a specific set of quirks and never grow from there.
Perhaps the film is a victim of elevated expectations; we are experiencing a bold new Age of Animation, in which the genre and its many forms are ever-expanding. In America, that is thanks largely to the Pixar films, which brilliantly blend state-of-the-art animation with something even more revolutionary – powerful stories and intriguing characters. With Pixar on a seemingly endless roll, and with some other films (recent examples include Kung Fu Panda 2 and, of course, Rango) keeping pace in terms of technical beauty and content depth, there is a shrinking window for error. Level-one movies like Puss in Boots are fun enough – and obviously can still dominate the box-office the way tentpole family movies always have – but will be easily forgotten after the lights go up.
[notification type=”star”]56/100 - Puss in Boots is a franchise spin-off that is cute and clever in the simplest way possible.[/notification]