I gave up on the Shrek franchise after Shrek the Third. I can’t remember exact details of why I thought it was bad. I just remember it being terribly unfunny and bloated with subplots. The apparently-improved quality of Shrek Forever After couldn’t get me to see it after The Third. And yet Puss in Boots intrigued me. I’m not sure why. I mean, it’s directed by Chris Miller, who also directed Shrek the Third. That should’ve been a reason to just avoid it at all costs. Instead though, Puss in Boots managed to prove itself on its own.
The story picks up sometime before the events of Shrek 2. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is a known outlaw throughout the (un-named) land. In the middle of an attempt to get the magic beans from Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), he runs into Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), who’s working for former partner-in-crime Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifiankis). From there, the three of them go on a heist to get the beans from Jack and Jill and use them to get the Goose who lays the golden eggs, which will give them eternal wealth.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. This movie apparently started as straight-to-DVD, and it’s rough enough around the edges to show it. The animation is fine, as Dreamworks always is, although the humans look a little off. I’ve always had a thing against Dreamworks humans compared to their non-human creations, though, so that might just be me. A lot of the problems show themselves in the scripting. It’s very simple. It almost seems like they thought they couldn’t do enough going to DVD, so everything seems scaled down. The action sequences don’t feel big enough. There’s no unforgettably hilarious scenes. There’s funny moments, but there’s no long sequences that had me hurting with laughter. I guess part of the problem might be that this should be Dreamworks’ A-movie of the year, but next to Kung Fu Panda 2, it feels like a B-movie. Puss also has some things that feel like they just carried over from the Shrek movies. They keep having these nods to the fairy tale characters (although most of them are from nursery rhymes) that feel more routine than anything. And yes, a character has to get hit in the balls.
Fortunately, there is a lot to like here. The voice acting rises above everything else for me. The main trio is just on the top of their game here. Antonio Banderas is projecting Zorro more than before, and it works fantastically. He’s really the swashbuckling hero of legend here, albeit also a cat, prone to all the things that implies. Salma Hayek manages to bring sexiness through to the character. It’s not quite a character with as much depth as you’d hope for, but she plays well against Puss. As much as the action sequences didn’t quite hit the level for me, any time Kitty and Puss are fighting bad guys, or just having a dance battle against each other, there is something wonderful there. Zach Galifiankis was the biggest surprise for me. After seeing The Hangover and Dinner for Schmucks, I’d expect nothing but the manchild out of him. Yet there’s an actual character in Humpty Dumpty. Again, not with much depth, but it’s better than I thought I was getting. I am fully convinced that Dreamworks can get far better performances out of comedic actors like Zach Galifiankis and Jack Black than they give in their live-action performances. The other really great thing about the movie is that it does not feel like a Shrek movie. This is not “Shrek 5 starring Puss in Boots”. This is Puss in Boots. Even though I mentioned things that carried over from Shrek, everything else doesn’t feel like Shrek. There’s no pop songs. The skewering of fairy tales has instead been replaced with a story that feels more like the real-life legends. The environments are changed to match it, with the forests and fairy tale towns of Shrek gone for vast deserts and Mexican-style cities. And there’s no cameos or call-forwards. This is a movie that stands on its own.
I enjoyed Puss in Boots. It might not aim as high as it could’ve. It’s definitely not at the level of Kung Fu Panda 2. But it’s fun and cute. And that’s what it’s aiming to be, so I’d call it a success.
SPECIAL BONUS REVIEW
Apparently, the popular iPhone app tying in to an animated movie is becoming a thing now. First there was Angry Birds: Rio, and now there’s Fruit Ninja: Puss in Boots. If you haven’t played the original Fruit Ninja, it’s a simple game. You swipe your finger across the screen to cut fruit while avoiding bombs. That’s about it. The Puss in Boots spin-off adds just enough to that formula. It has two modes, Desperado and Bandito. Desperado is the traditional endless gameplay, as you attempt to cut every fruit or you lose a life, with the only new addition being Magic Beans that restore lives or give you bonus points. The big reason to get this is the Bandito mode, which has three tiers of mini-games that you go through. They range from trying to slice fruit while a giant bomb bounces around the screen, to slicing fruit that flies in certain patterns around the screen. The amount of mini-games is just enough that they don’t repeat too often. It ends up just as addictive as the main game. The Puss in Boots window dressing is also a nice addition. The backgrounds are taken from the movie's locations, the blades include a guitar and cat claws, you get several Antonio Banderas voice clips to complement your fruit-slicing, and the fruit facts after you fail are replaced with fairy tale facts. It is a bit skimpy compared to the original game, with less blades and backgrounds and only two modes compared to the original’s 3, but it’s still an addictive, fun time-waster, and the Bandito mode is definitely worth the $1.