Believe it or not, Puss in Boots is the fifth installment in the Shrek franchise, and the first spinoff/prequel so far. I have generally fond memories of the first film, but have had little interest in venturing into the subsequent entries. So I went into Puss in Boots with little to no expectations of grandeur.
We are certainly in a new era for DreamWorks Animation, and while the studio is still largely defined as “not-Pixar”, in recent years we have seen some projects from the studio that are more than a string of body humor jokes and out-of-date pop culture references. The Kung Fu Panda franchise and How to Train Your Dragon showed that the studio could produce beautifully animated films that may not try to ape Pixar’s sense of heart or mastery of classic storytelling, but are fun works of children’s entertainment.
Puss in Boots is definitely in this latter vein. The film doesn’t feel like a prequel so much as the first installment in a franchise of its own (somewhere a marketing executive just bought himself another Porsche when I wrote that). Antonio Banderas reprises the role of Puss, the swashbuckling feline with fantastic footwear, and he brings a very Jack Sparrow-like energy to the character. While Shrek and Donkey are (thankfully?) absent, Puss is joined by Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), a scheming outsider, who ends up providing much of the humor and pathos, and Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). Also appearing are the villainous swine-raising Jack and Jill (voiced by Billy Bob Thorton and Amy Sedaris, respectfully) now all grown up and mercenaries for hire. Unlike the heroes, these characters never show much depth.
The plot more or less recasts the fable of Jack and the Beanstalk as a sword/steampunk/western heist film, and fairly successfully. The characters’ histories are intertwined with the plot to give everyone at least a modest amount of character development. Unlike some of the poorer entries in the DreamWorks’ catalog, the characters drive the story, rather than the humor, making it a fun adventure tale. Puss in Boots doesn’t pander to its younger audience, and while it is a far cry from ‘sophisticated’, I have no shame in admitting I wholeheartedly enjoyed it. And I thank whoever talked them out of making any references to lolcats.
Puss in Boots opens wide in Philly-area theaters today.