After far too many Shrek sequels – and an especially poor, apparently final chapter in Shrek Forever After – the idea of any character from the series getting their own spin-off isn’t a particularly attractive prospect. In the most underwhelming period for animated fare in quite some time, however, Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots just about pulls ahead of the disappointing likes of Cars 2, Rio, Arthur Christmas and Happy Feet Two as one of the year’s more gathered – and surprisingly so – children’s films, even if it’s still relatively simplistic and none too original.
Taking place before Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) meets Shrek and Donkey in Shrek 2, this pic has Puss chasing three magical beans that he has been after his entire life, which are now in the possession of two southern outlaws, Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris). He finds a rival in the tempestuous feline Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), and along the way tries to make peace with his long-separated friend from childhood, Humpy Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis).
Moreso than any of the Shrek films, Puss in Boots mixes up its realism with its un-realism so to speak; large portions of the film are actually plausible as a fairly straight, even quite realistic adventure film, and then others are wildly outlandish, such as Puss’s frequent sword fights with humans, which could do with perhaps being a little bit clumsier for this sake. Still, the core appeal and the main reason for the film’s success is Banderas, who throws himself into the role, milking his smooth Spanish accent for all it’s worth, and enthusiastically playing up to the stereotype that the role invites.
Less focused on the keen satire of fairytale tropes that made the first two Shreks such a hoot, Puss is a far more reigned-in, simple story, playing somewhat convincingly as a Desperado-for-kids vehicle, even having the good humour to cast his co-star and love interest from that film, Salma Hayek, as the very same here. Further distinguishing it from its preceding series is a surprising heft of more adult humour than would be expected of the Shrek films (that peculiar Pinocchio thong gag from Shrek 2 notwithstanding); close calls with genitalia mutilation, several discussions about murder, and the unexpected demise of one character at the climax all give this a harder edge than you might anticipate.
The plot is, to be fair, a little feeble; all the talk of magical beans and beanstalks is tackled without really sending it up, other than a throwaway one-liner about the giant dying years ago. It’s played relatively straight for the most part, and instead much of the fun of watching this film comes from the interludes, particularly an incredibly cute flashback sequence depicting Puss and Humpty as kids. It should have emphasised their friendship a little more to provide the most satisfying emotional payoff possible later on, but matters of the heart is and probably always will be Pixar’s department. Still, Zach Galifianakis is an inspired, frequently hilarious choice for Humpty.
One silly scene in which the gang have a high-pitched frolic in the clouds is admittedly quite gimmicky and certainly overlong, while the climax – involving a giant goose – seems a bit over-the-top even for the outlandish standards of everything that has come before. However, the final scenes present a genuinely frightening moral question for Puss, one which ends without the expected last-minute save and is fairly brave for a film aimed squarely at children. Hats – and boots – off to them for it.
It has its share of pedestrian moments for sure, but the tremendous voice work and vibrant animation – which make the best of both Puss’s acrobatic skill and wonderfully expressive countenance – certainly make this worth a watch. While its fairytale-inspired premise lacks the subversive wit of the better Shrek films, Puss in Boots is an agreeably snappy, visually enticing yarn nonetheless.
Puss in Boots is in cinema’s now.