The Value of Formula
DreamWorks Animation promoted itself as a breath of fresh air and some welcome competition to the Disney empire, but Jeffrey Katzenberg and company soon realized the value of formula: expensive animation, chattering celebrity voices, pop culture gags, and some patronizing adult references. Tie it all up with a movie-ending dance number, and you’ve got a minimum of $140 million at the domestic box office and maybe a franchise. There have been some deviations of course, but generally the Shrek series is the perfect flagship for the company: it pretends to tweak fairy tale clichés by flipping into pseudo-sophisticated screenwriter clichés.
Puss in Boots is a Shrek spin-off, which might seem pointless in addition to predictable. In the Shrek movies, Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) was basically a single hilarious gag—a smooth-talking, swashbuckling cat with the trappings of an actual feline, like purring and looking adorable to disarm enemies—stretched thin by the end of that series. The movie doesn’t exactly expand that gag, and in fact makes many predictable DreamWorks/Hollywood moves, like giving the lead character a heartfelt, too-serious backstory (one the film acknowledges as such, when a listener falls asleep as Puss tells it). But it’s a little stranger and funnier than its Shrek cousins, and sometimes works quite well within its limitations.
Those limitations include that heartfelt backstory, explaining how Puss in Boots came to be part hero, part outlaw, complete with a caring (and utterly uncharacterized) mother figure in the orphanage where he was left as a kitten. There, we learn, he formed a friendship with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), bonding over their outcast status and dreaming of a better life. But Humpty gravitates towards cons and thievery, while Puss realizes he wants to be a hero. Their paths diverge, only to cross again years later, when Humpty and his associate Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) need help stealing magic beans from the malevolent Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris).
Much of this is belabored, but the central relationship between Puss and Humpty has a little more nuance than typical buddy-comedy dynamics. Galifianakis doesn’t trade on the man-child persona he’s developed in the flesh; he’s surprisingly effective playing Humpty as a scheming loner, not a wisecracking sidekick or a non-sequitur generator. At the same time, the film squeezes a lot of laughs from the sheer logistical weirdness of a walking, talking egg forming a partnership with two spry, well-dressed cats; the script, thankfully, often eschews pop-culture allusions in favor of the kind of visual and physical comedy made possible by animation.
That animation mostly has a moodier, handsomer look than the Shrek series. Still, Puss in Boots’ human characters are stylized enough to be ugly, realistic enough for that ugliness to be boring, backed by dusky lighting and stylish night skies. Though ostensibly set in the same universe as Shrek—fairy-tale characters still make up some of the supporting cast—it looks more warmly European than the blandly pretty land of Far Far Away.
It’s the movie’s visual world, especially in contrast with the Shreks, that lingers after it’s over, to the extent that anything does. The plentiful cat gags are amusing but forgettable, and only a few of the action-adventure moments stand out like those in the Kung Fu Panda series. Even at its most enjoyably silly, Puss in Boots still traffics in clichés, like the mysterious, athletic masked figure who turns out to be, gasp, female! (Especially strange when Kitty’s gender is supposed to be revealed through her face.) Banderas and Hayek, reunited from Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado series, are cute together, but the Puss/Kitty relationship doesn’t have much zest: she’s just the female version of him.
This sort of thinness leaves the movie far shy of the best DreamWorks cartoons so far: How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda put more unforced heart into their own clichés than this odd lot of gags, action, and sentiment can manage. But Puss in Boots does feel more refreshing than anything associated with Shrek should be at this point. As with Puss’s big cute-cat eyes, the calculation behind it is visible, but not always easy to resist.