REVIEW: Shrek Spin-Off Puss in Boots Purrs with Genuine Charm
After the Shrek series used up its charm on rote third and fourth installments that nevertheless raked in giant piles of box office bullion, the prospect of a spin-off prequel focusing on Antonio Banderas' swashbuckling, footwear-sporting feline seemed as inevitable as it was unpromising. But Puss in Boots, directed by Chris Miller (who also helmed Shrek the Third) is a legitimately entertaining prequel that encapsulates what the franchise does best: Breezy action, clever twists on classic figures from fables and grown-up gags tucked in amidst the kid-friendly developments. ("You got any idea what they do to eggs in prison? I'll tell you this -- it ain't over easy!" the Zach Galifianakis-voiced Humpty Dumpty quavers at one point, in the first prison rape joke I can think of to not only be slipped into a kiddie flick but also highlighted in the trailer.)
It's become very easy to think of computer-animated films as falling into the categories of "Pixar" and "Everything Else," with the former consisting of marvels of art and entertainment and the latter made up of 80-minute chunks of bright colors, merchandising opportunities and outdated pop culture references. But as Cars 2 suggests, not even Pixar can be Pixar all the time, and films like Rango and Puss in Boots provide a gratifying reminder that all mainstream animation has the capacity to get beyond the lucrative niche of the joylessly calculated kid movie. It doesn't hurt that Puss in Boots has the participation of Guillermo del Toro, who serves as executive producer and provides the voice of the Comandante -- the man may have a lot going on at the moment, but there's no doubting his aversion to condescension to audiences and his reverence for fairy tales.
It's that of Jack and the Beanstalk that provides the backbone for Puss in Boots' plot, though the mood is pure spaghetti western. Puss is roped into a heist in which he and his cohorts will steal the magic beans from Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), who've been turned into square-shouldered outlaws bickering about the right time to slow down their careers in order to have a baby. The gang intends to plant the enchanted legumes in the right spot and climb the resulting vine to steal the golden eggs from the giant's castle (the giant passed away ages ago, but that doesn't mean there isn't still something fierce standing guard). Complicating this plan is the fact that it was dreamed up by Humpty, an ovoid mastermind who grew up in the same orphanage as Puss, and with whom the cat shares an unhappy past. Reuniting with Banderas for a non-Robert Rodriguez-led outing, Salma Hayek provides the voice of Kitty Softpaws, the third cohort, a flirty feline thief with an extra light (and declawed) touch.
Usually, the adult and sometimes risqué jokes added to movies like these, intended to sail over the heads of younger audience, have the tone of an apology, a bone thrown to bored parents. The occasional wink here -- there's even a medical marijuana crack -- seems a little more naughty and good-humored, as if the creators genuinely couldn't help themselves. Not that the film demands such concessions: Puss in Boots doesn't have and doesn't strive for the soul of a Pixar film, but gets pleasure enough out of its own characters and the way they move through this cleverly realized world. Humpty, for instance, his petulant features grouped in the center of his head/torso, struggles with the limitations of an egg-shaped body, including how difficult it can be to get up once one has had a great fall.
Puss and his love interest Kitty have touchable-looking fur of varied length and texture, and move in a diverting combination of lithe human and even lither cat ways, at one point getting into a dance competition that brings in elements of flamenco and poop scooting. The eruption of the beanstalk into the stratosphere and the trio's bouncing around on the clouds upon arrival provides the film's highlight, not just in terms of the beauty of its visuals but because of the physicality that goes with them. The characters cling to the plant through its magically accelerated growth spurt, grappling with leaves and ricocheting off stems, and they never display the weightlessness than can still afflict this type of animation and splinter its manufactured reality. Puss in Boots further plays to its strong points by placing the human characters in the background, with the exception of Jack and Jill, who look more like caricatures than people.
The film rounds an extended flashback and its central theft and completes its tale of betrayal and forgiveness by returning to the small town of San Ricardo, scene of Puss' shame and his ultimate redemption. It may not bring a tear to your eye, but it won't leave you feeling cheated or talked down to, even when the de rigueur credits dance number comes around. There's nary an appearance from an ogre, and no Donkey, either -- that, I'm guessing, is a spin-off for another day.