Back before he crossed paths with Shrek and co., Puss (Banderas) was a roving outlaw and thief, haunted by his best friend Humpty Dumpty's (Galifianakis) seeming betrayal and looking for a way to clear his name.
His first big adventure involved a beanstalk, a giant’s treasure and a fetching feline named Kitty Softpaws (Hayek)… The Shrek franchise has been DreamWorks’ golden goose — a powerhouse at the box office that has kept popping out shiny dollar signs. But, smartly realising that they can’t keep forcing it to deliver forever, the company has now turned its attention to one of the most popular characters to show up in the series: Puss In Boots. It’s a good move too, since Antonio Banderas’ frisky feline is mostly able to hold up the weight of his own adventure.
Taking him back to his orphaned roots for an origin story, this standalone tale proves that there was a solid vein of entertainment still to be tapped with the furry one. He’s gone from stealing scenes in Shrek to stealing trinkets, and the golden goose idea is still apt, since the script mixes the basic concept of Humpty Dumpty, Jack And The Beanstalk and Jack And Jill. Yes, kid-lit is still ripe pickings for the plot, as Jack and Jill this time are ruthless bandits brought to life deftly by Amy Sedaris and grumpily by Billy Bob Thornton. The beanstalk? Present and correct, though it’s not a giant person who gets annoyed when the golden eggs go missing. But the standout of them all is Humpty, voiced with able emotion by Zach Galifianakis. Bullied as a child (though whoever thought it was a good idea to mix a seemingly fragile egg-boy with real children is clearly just looking to make an omelette) and full of big dreams, Humpty’s transformation from wide-eyed nerd to criminal genius is heartfelt and well-realised.
Like the fighter at the centre of it all, this spin-off is swift on its paws and, happily, much lighter on the pop cultural gags than most of its progenitor’s entries. There’s still a tendency to try to cram too much in, but on the whole, it works. Hayek does decent work and has plenty of spark with Banderas (they’ve shared the screen several times in live-action before), though Kitty Softpaws herself never quite becomes as memorable as, say, Jessica Rabbit in terms of worryingly sexy animated characters. But it’s nice to see DreamWorks continuing to let the voices do the heavy lifting instead of slipping back into old habits and relying on A-list wattage to draw in the crowds. Here, the cat’s the star.
And because there’s so much focus on the hero, there are a torrent of gags that are, for the most part, effective. So we get a pot joke about catnip (“It’s for my glaucoma”) and Puss In Boots is always ordering leche. Plus, we find out that the idea of cats always landing on their feet is a myth “spread by dogs”. An early standout sequence is the dance-off between Puss and Kitty at the (G)litter box bar, a wonderfully realised parade of flamenco-meets-Step Up that gives both the animators and actors a chance to shine. And of course, given Humpty Dumpty’s presence, there are lots of jokes about bad eggs. Avoiding most of the pitfalls of what Jon Favreau once labelled “parent punishers”, Boots blends laughs for grown-ups with material for the kids.
Just don’t go expecting much wild invention in the storytelling department (not that the Shrek series was ever exactly mould-breaking itself). This spin-off is strictly a chance for the hero to find his true nature, reclaim his good name and look good while he does it.
The movie itself looks good too — the crisp 3D is never overused and the visuals, including some great Spanish-flavoured locales and desert badlands, are fantastic. With nods, winks and flat-out theft of everything from Zorro (naturally) and James Bond to noir and Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, it’s also, tellingly, the first DreamWorks outing to show the fingerprints of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, who added a little extra spice to the proceedings and also crops up in two small voice cameos.
Given the film’s early success at the US box office, it would appear that DreamWorks has found a new cash cow to milk, so expect to see more of the moggie, especially since there’s plenty of story left to fill between the end of this and his first appearance in Shrek 2. If any future entries are as fun as this one, it should enjoy a long, healthy life. Just not nine of them.
Like most kittens, it's not always perfectly behaved, but at least this new Puss adventure doesn't have you reaching for the cinematic spray bottle.