“Puss in Boots,” Dreamworks Studios’s latest animated film, stars the scene-stealing feline outlaw who first appeared in “Shrek 2.” The story takes place before Puss’s (Antonio Banderas) encounter with Shrek the ogre and gives insight into his self-described “bad kitty” past. “Puss in Boots” is not a mere kid’s movie; it is a family movie, one that children will enjoy while parents and older members of the family laugh at jokes the kids don't understand. This balancing act is mostly successful, and along with Banderas’s inspired performance, makes the film one of Dreamworks’s best in recent memory.
Aside from its protagonist, the film features an almost entirely new cast of characters in the Shrek universe. Antonio Banderas reprises his role as Puss. He voices the film’s titular character with ample charm and his signature suave Spanish accent, while Salma Hayek lends her equally sensuous tones to the seductive Kitty Softpaws. Though Softpaws is not a traditional fairytale character, she holds her own alongside Puss’s childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), as well as outlaws Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris).
Without Shrek staples Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz, it is up to Banderas and his new co-stars to carry the film, which they manage with aplomb. So while viewers hoping for an appearance from Shrek, Donkey, or Fiona will be disappointed, the best feature of the “Shrek” film franchise—the distortion of fairytale characters into twisted and hilarious caricatures—is well preserved, to the movie’s credit. After all, who wouldn’t want to see Jack and Jill reimagined as a grotesque and murderous married couple with soft spots for swine?
The film’s plot contains elements from various fairytales and fables, all mashed up into the “Shrek” series’s trademark subversive jumble. As with the previous “Shrek” movies, the animation is stunning, so rich that individual strands of Puss’s fur can be seen. The landscapes are realistic and varied: Puss’s Spanish village is charmingly quaint and the film’s desert brings to mind the settings of countless Westerns.
Of course, the principal reason to watch this movie is not the scenery but its utterly adorable, irascible and charming main character, brought deliciously to life by Banderas. In his capable hands, Puss proves as irresistable as the countless internet memes involving kittens that proliferate on YouTube and Tumblr. His signature wide-eyed look never gets old, and only improves in 3D.
Alongside its overt cuteness, the movie also has some edgier punchlines that will fly over the typical preteen’s head. Most of these jokes are witty, but the cleverness does run thin at times. Expect an endless cavalcade of cat clichés as well as a plethora of egg puns and double entendres. A favorite: what happens to eggs in prison? According to Humpty Dumpty, it is not “over easy.”
As in prior “Shrek” movies, music plays an essential role in setting the irreverent tone for “Puss in Boots.” The soundtrack, largely composed by Henry P. Jackman, sports Spanish string riffs and multiple dance numbers. Indeed, one of the film’s shining moments is a dance-off between Boots and Softpaws, a scene that rivals “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” in Disney’s “The Aristocats.” And yes, that is Lady GaGa’s “Americano” playing at movie’s end.
“Puss in Boots” combines this humor with some romance—granted, between two cats—and lots of action, as well as some genuinely meaningful moments. The film is surprisingly effective at conveying its ostensibly trite moral—it is never too late to do the right thing—in a manner that should resonate with viewers, old and young alike. Thus, while the movie lacks the emotional poignancy of a Pixar production, it nonetheless offers more than mere laughs.
Who knows what’s next for the Shrek series? Perhaps a prequel focused on Donkey’s past? A continuation of Puss’s story? Does it really matter? What is more important is that “Puss in Boots” makes this a question worth asking. With this fresh CGI comedy, director Chris Miller has reinvigorated a flagging franchise and opened the door to promising new possibilities.