Remember when the Shrek franchise used to be fun, creative and energetic? Yea, I don’t. Come to think of it, looking back at the Shrek series, all I can recall is Mike Myers’ ridiculous mugging, that awful Scottish accent, the stale pop culture jokes, the nauseating pop songs and the derivative plots which kept milking the same formula over and over again. Shrek 2, Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After were, in a word, overstuffed, stale and forgettable respectively. Though they had their moments, none were able to balance the heart, humor and story the way the Oscar-winning original did. Hey, maybe I do remember something good about the franchise after all.
If there’s one reason to go back and re-watch the sequels, it’s for Puss in Boots. Resembling an animated Capt. Jack Sparrow of the fairy tale land, the scene-stealing feline bounty hunter, voiced with great charm and whimsy by the debonair Antonio Banderas, was first introduced in Shrek 2, and soon became the beacon of the franchise even as it walked the plank into dullsville. Now, ten years after the original, Puss finally gets his own full-length feature that, thankfully, has no connection to the Shrek films. There aren’t any ogres, the setting has moved to Spain, the story is straight-forward but far more engagingly told, and gone are the incessant pop culture gimmicks that drove the franchise to the ground.
In its place is a spaghetti western-styled origin tale that plays on the strengths of the swashbuckling character i.e. plenty of sword fights, romancing and comedy. With character origins in focus, we get to see the stylish feline’s childhood, how earned his boots and his feathery hat, his long-standing friendship and falling out with his best friend Humpty Dumpty (the always hilarious Zach Galifianakis), and how he earns his reputation as a legendary ladies’ man and bounty hunter.
Alongside the spaghetti elements, director Chris Miller and his team of writers also structure the plot as a heist picture that follows Puss, Humpty and a fleet-feet thief named Kitty Softpaws (voiced sultrily by Salma Hayek) as they head out on a quest to steal the famed “magical beans” (of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ fame) from the ruthless Jack & Jill, climb up the beanstalk and get rich off the golden eggs. Along the way, we get a few thrilling chases over rooftops and mountain-tops, an impeccably choreographed dance-off, chorused wonderfully by Henry Jackson’s flamenco guitar-tinted score, and plenty of fantastic animation to feast your eyes on – especially in a terrific sequence on the magical beanstalk in the clouds.
It goes without saying that Puss in Boots is no match with most of Pixar’s output. It’s not the best animated film I’ve seen this year either. That title still stands by the terrific Rango, which like Puss was also significantly influenced by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. But Puss is still a fine family flick that delivers the laughs and the fun consistently. A lot of that is in debt to its talented cast. Banderas, fantastic as always, brings life to the role of the suave and uber-confident Puss. I won’t be surprised if this role were to become his lasting legacy among most Americans. Hayek’s sultry performance is a perfect match as Puss’ foil and love interest.
Free of the constraints of the tiresome Shrek films, the colorful and widely entertaining Puss in Boots could be the best film in the Shrek franchise since the original 2001 film. Maybe that’s not saying much for many who have been disenchanted with the series but fear not, it’s a compliment. This gleefully told comedy is beset with exquisite animation, fun characters and skillful screenwriting. Think of it as a Latin-flavored western with a debonair lead as intoxicating as Capt. Jack Sparrow, and you should be in for a good time.