Finally, a supporting character from the Shrek franchise who earned their chops the hard way, enduring arduous animated battles and even more arduous stunt voice casting, has gotten a film of their very own, a fuzzy family affair that will make the whole brood giggle. No, sadly, it’s not those adorable flying Donkey-Dragon babies (trivia! Wikipedia tells me they are named Debbie, Coco, Bananas, Peanut, Parfait, and Éclair), but it’s Dreamworks’s own answer to “what would Zorro be like if he was, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, actually a cat?” That’s Puss in Boots to you, amigo.
Antonio Banderas returns to the role he originated, a Zorro-meets-French-fairy-tale feline famous for stealing both bullion and babes. But what if Puss was, gasp, not a criminal at all, but a misunderstood kitty desperate to return to the mother he loves, a innocent cat framed for a crime he didn’t commit, a bipedal boot-wearing bad boy who is quietly concealing a heart of gold? What if then? Well, you’re about to find out.
My familiarity with the Shrek franchise is a weak one, but Puss in Boots goes out of its way to lay out a standalone mythology that, like Shrek, is made up of mish-mashed fairy tales, cobbled together in ways that are oftentimes just plain clever and fun. There’s also a litany of things are out-and-out bizarre (the cat-dancing at the cat-club with the cat-band and oh, the cats, so many cats, will haunt me forever). The film is populated by not just Puss, but other classic fairy tale characters like Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, and Jack and the Beanstalk (well, mainly just the beanstalk and its necessary Magic Beans), but all set in a world significantly less magical than Far Far Away. By that I mean that half of it takes place in a desert that looks like something that fell out of John Wayne’s boot, not anything that actually exists in Spain proper. There are also bars and underground dance halls. And a beanstalk cloud kingdom, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Puss has a strained and complicated past with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), reimagined here as a devious egghead whose betrayal of Puss resulted in the feline’s unfair casting as a dashing thief (most of Puss’s earliest exploits only involved stealing hearts, not dry goods or cash money). Puss and Humpty were raised together in a Spanish orphanage for other cast-aside fairy tale kiddos, bonded by their differences (Humpty was too smart for the other kids, Puss was just too charming). As children, Humpty shared the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk with Puss, and the pair made it their life’s mission to find the Magic Beans from the story so that they too could climb up the ‘stalk to claim a fortune that would take them away from their penniless life as orphans. Their passion for the endeavor faded, however, and Puss eventually became a hero to their tiny hamlet, with Humpty’s oversized head getting him into increasingly hot water, a division of interests and spirit that ultimately led to that betrayal, followed in quick order by some cracking, some fleeing, and some branding of villainy.
Puss is not a bad kitty, he’s just been drawn that way. At his heart, Puss really just wants to clear his name and go home again. So when the Magic Beans finally appear, followed in short order by fantastic fellow thief Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and the reemergence of the cracked egg, even Puss is in over his furry head. It does not help that the nefarious Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) are in possession of said beans, and the grown-up pair very clearly did fall down a hill as children, hitting every Ugly Rock and Totally Scary Stone on the way down. Jack and Jill, combined with their snorting mob of wagon-pulling hogs, don’t intend on letting anyone get their Magic Beans, especially a feline in leather footwear. Cue fun and frisky adventure.
The film comes to us from director Chris Miller (Shrek the Third) and a writing team that includes the guy who wrote American Pie 2 (David H. Steinberg), the guy who created ill-fated television series The Cape (Tom Wheeler), and the dude who wrote The Perfect Score (Jon Zack) – which sort of perfectly describes the tone and tenor of the film. Puss in Boots slips into adult humor more often than one might expect, with Puss’s first on-screen appearance paying serious attention to his, ahem, skills as, ahem, a skilled, oh this is just so awkward for a children’s movie – as a lover, okay? His skills as lover. The cat. The animated cat. The animated cat is apparently pleasing to other (female) animated cats and it’s a bizarrely big element of the film.
In any case, if you think that your children may not be scarred by the implications of a randy feline, then Puss in Boots is a fine family film pick. It’s not likely to become anyone’s favorite animated feature, but it’s a fun film that’s packed with enough laughs to keep the vast majority of your movie-going family happy and engaged. Paw to God, it made me snort like one of Jack and Jill’s beloved hogs.
The Upside: Puss in Boots is about nine (lives?) funnier than it has any right to be.
The Downside: You may have to explain to your kids why that fluffy girl kitty laying on a pillow looks so satisfied. What a great time for the birds and the bees talk!
On the Side: Did anyone ever actually get a talk about birds and bees? Anyone? Use kitties!