“Spin-off!" Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?”
Or so The Simpsons’ Troy McClure would have you believe. Evidently DreamWorks does too, with DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots about to hit theaters tomorrow. (Or last week, or last month when you might come across this review.)
Heathcliff, Garfield, and now Puss; orange tabbies seem to be at the front of the line when it comes to getting their own movie. it’s about time too, after years of Si and Am (Lady and the Tramp), Mr. Tinkles (Cats and Dogs) and Kitty Galore (Cats and Dogs redux) depicting cats as villains.
Can a former supporting player (Shrek s II, II and IV) carry his own film? The answer is yes, especially if it sets up his backstory, introduces a female rival/love interest, provides plenty of entertaining set-pieces and a despicable villain or two.
It seems Puss (again voiced by Antonio Banderas, the only performer who could do him justice) originates in a corner of fairy tale land closely resembling Spain and/or Spanish-colonized California. The backstory introduces orphans Puss and Humpty Dumpty (the ubiquitous Zach Galifinakis) and their divergent life paths. (Get ready for plenty of “bad/rotten/good” egg puns.)
When Humpty re-appears in the adult Puss’ life, it’s adventure time as the pair team up to steal a handful of MacGuffin-y magic beans from comically loathsome spouses Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris). Funny, I thought they were siblings, but let’s not pursue that one any further... (Puss in Boots isn’t the only movie to villainize the pair; they’re also (SPOILER!) the baddies in Hoodwinked Too!)
This is where Kitty Softpaws, Puss’s female counterpart appears, snatchblocking Puss’ attempt to swipe said beans. The run-in leads to the movie’s first (and best) set-piece: a flamenco dance-off between the perfectly matched pair set in a feline cantina. (Where judging from the placid cow present, only one beverage is served.)
The film’s narrative is McKee-ist to the max, with every challenge followed by a triumph and vice versa. Humpty, who betrayed Puss way back when (and somehow feels the opposite took place) is/isn’t on Humpty’s side throughout the film. (Guess whether he winds up eggs-over or sunnyside up by the movie’s end.)
The film’s most spectacular sequence depicts said magic beans’ eruption from a hole in the ground, through fearsome storm clouds and up to a castle in the sky where the goose what lays golden eggs resides. (No giant however, just a scary whatsis haunting the castle. Speaking about giants, the movie’s production notes explain Puss was about three feet tall in the Shrek movies to stand up against the big green ogre, but was resized to a standard feline for his own film.)
Swirling leaves and tendrils erupt out of the ground and carry Humpty, Puss and Kitty up, up and away. It’s a beautifully rendered sequence that probably had the animators studying time-lapse footage of growing plants for weeks on end. (And I’ll be shocked if it’s not a level in the videogame.)
One of Humpty’s many betrayals of Puss leads to the cat’s capture, imprisonment – and the movie’s best gag-for-the-grownups: while inventorying his possessions the jailers discover a small bottle of catnip stashed inside one of his boots. “That’s for my glaucoma,” Puss explains. Mm-hmm, sure it is...
Puss in Boots ends as it began, with the cat a wrongly-accused fugitive on the run, heroically posed atop his galloping horse and framed against a huge orange sun, in search of... what? (Not-really-a-spoiler-answer: DreamWorks’s next franchise, of course.)