Such a kitty
As if it wasn't enough of a drag that Cars 2 sucked: DreamWorks Animation has now followed Pixar* with a movie that takes the heavily, one might say offensively stereotypical comic sidekick of one of their previous hits and places him in an adventure all his own. But unlike Mater Goes Bananas, they did it well. Despite being a spin-off from the irritating Shrek franchise, Puss in Boots is a whole lot of fun, an ironic adventure movie that crackles with energy and surprisingly non-grating comedy that is neither puerile nor scatological nor gruesomely anachronistic, and thereby hardly manages to be a Shrek movie at all. But then, Puss in Boots, the swashbuckling cat voiced by the rolling tones of Antonio Banderas, has been the best of that series' main characters ever since his introduction in Shrek 2, and if what we are seeing here is proof that all it takes to make a good Shrek movie is to get rid of that fucking talking Donkey and tone down the insufferable, self-amused pop culture parody... well, heck, I've been banging that drum for years now.
Taking place sufficiently far before Shrek 2 that there is yet room for a Puss in Boots 2 (though the film's dismal box-office would seem to have made that a remote possibility), the film takes place in a dusty land that looks and feels an awful lot like an Epcot Center version of medieval Spain, and is in fact explicitly called Spain at one point in dialogue, a considerable violation of series rules that rather pissed me off, in fact. Here, we meet Puss in Boots, a rogue and outlaw who spends his time seducing every lady cat that comes his way and perpetrating tiny robberies to keep himself alive. The plot kicks in when he encounters a former partner, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), a talkative and somewhat nervous egg who betrayed our hero once, years before, and Humpty's new hench-cat, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). Their plan is to steal a handful of magic beans from Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), a pair of criminal thugs, and use the magical beanstalk that will grow from them to find and capture the goose that lays golden eggs and thus fulfill the dreams of Humpty's avaricious little life.
No formulas are challenged and no wheels are reinvented in this particular movie (although, come to think of it, the formula being followed is rather closer to the typical Pixar sentimental adventure-comedy structure than the usual DreamWorks house style), and that's just fine: Puss in Boots succeeds at being a perfectly pleasant and mirthful - which is not the same thing as being laugh-out-loud funny - tale for parents to enjoy, perhaps, somewhat more than the kids they've accompanied to the theater. There is nothing as despairingly "huhr-huhr" funny only for the easily-amused grown-ups in attendance as naming a character "Farquaad", although Puss's easily-aroused libido (and, arguably, his name) still suggest a movie that would maybe be slightly happier with a PG-13 rating; but what really got me was that, unlike its four predecessors, Puss in Boots actually manages to do a good job of recasting traditional fairy tale tropes and characters in a meta-narrative where their allowed to be at once both the traditional version of themselves and a winking, modern-dress riff on the hokiness of those same traditions. It's not sophisticated in some absolute, universal sense, but it's certainly more sophisticated than the Shrek movies' attempts at the same general end point.
More to the point, it's fun, and pretty damn beautiful: I have never found the Shrek movies to be the most aesthetically advanced of DreamWorks Animations projects, and that still holds (the character design and animation in How to Train Your Dragon is more accomplished by an order of magnitude; Kung Fu Panda 2 does things with lighting and color far beyond what the Puss in Boots animators would even speculate about). But the dusky Spanish landscapes are a huge step up, and Puss's own expressive body language and generally subtle facial expressions are fare more accomplished than in any of his three preceding outings.
And as far as the film is an adventure-comedy, it certainly gets the job done - it's not hilarious, I mentioned, but it's good for quite a few grins along the way, and some of the conceits are genuinely surprising. It works far better as an adventure, with four separate action setpieces (spaced out with metronomic precision) that director Chris Miller presents with flair and admirably kinetic choreography between the characters and the "camera" (you'd never guess that his only previous feature was the series nadir Shrek the Third), reaching at certain moments an acrobatic expressiveness that represents the very best of what animation can do that live action simply cannot. That's on top of a quest narrative that certainly won't surprise anybody for very long (the big third-act twist is predictable from almost the first minute that the character involved appears onscreen), but moves through a goodly number of enjoyably disparate locations and visual schemes, and appeals in the way of any decent genre story: it takes us to all the plot points we anticipate with swiftness and wit.
Ultimately, it all rests on attitude: not the hip Attitude of the Shreks, but on a distinct freshness and freewheeling let's-not-care-but-have-fun sensibility that animated every moment of the story; it is the mode in which Bandera's well-honed performance dwells ever single moment, no matter how many objectively silly things he's required to say. His Puss in Boots is simply a fun character: combining the best of a Flynn-esque lover and fighter with the ditzy cartoonishness of a playful kitty cat; and if it a success on no other level, Puss in Boots is certainly a grand excuse for the cat lovers of the world to coo with delight at how the film, for all its irony and action, never stops being charmingly about how weird and delightful cats can be. Weird and delightful and charming - that's exactly what the film is, a low-key triumph of simple entertainment that is spry without being hectic, and sometimes, family entertainment can and should aim for no greater glory than that.