It really shouldn’t be this hard.
The formula is simple: you take a well-known and beloved character from a regarded franchise and give him his own platform in which to shine. It’s Rhoda’s own spin off show in the wake of Mary Tyler Moore finally bowing out. It’s Fraiser branching out on his own after Cheers shuts down. It’s Falstaff getting his own play because the people in the peanut gallery love the hell out of him.
So while the idea of taking Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) from the Shrek franchise and giving him his own feature sounds absolutely dynamite on paper, the execution is completely flawed. In Puss in Boots, we are taken to a time before everyone’s favorite Zorro-like outlaw was hired to wax a certain green ogre. This is a time when Puss was still an outlaw, respected in some circles while feared in others. He is informed by some bar patrons that notorious outlaws Jack & Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris in thankless roles) have obtained some magic beans, and will use them to try and grow a plant up to a castle in the sky to kidnap the famed “golden goose” of legend.
In an attempt to take the beans, Puss is foiled by a fellow cat burglar named Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) who, it turns out, is working for Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), a mischievous egg who used to be Puss’ best friend before betraying him and making him the shame of his hometown of San Ricardo. After much convincing, Puss agrees to help Kitty and Humpty attempt to steal the magic beans, leading to a whole series of adventures and surprising double-crosses.
So while the set-up is certainly decent, the film ultimately suffers from a true lack of dramatic tension, which isn’t surprising given who’s helming this effort: Chris Miller. For those who don’t know, Miller had a notable run as the head of story for the quite-excellent Shrek 2 before taking the director’s chair for Shrek the Third, which is far and away the worst film in the franchise and one of the worst animated films this side of Cars 2. The problem? There were practically no stakes for the characters, the big dramatic crux of the film (where Prince Charming seeks his revenge on Shrek) seemed to just lazily stroll along, the whole thing feeling like it came together more out of obligation than necessity, all whilst introducing us to a litany of new characters that we cared very little about.
It’s that last point — actually caring about the characters — which proves to be the big thorn in Puss in Boots‘ paw. While we do get to know both Kitty Softpaws and Humpty Dumpty rather well, we’re never given enough time to truly develop a connection with them. Kitty has virtually no backstory (which wouldn’t be so big a deal were it not for her character arc being so painfully predictable), Humpty remains nebulous and unsympathetic (even with a talent like Galifianakis behind him, this big ol’ egg just cannot be saved when it comes to emotional through-lines), and even Puss’ mother — a stern woman who runs an orphanage that happens to come across the infant feline — simply shows basic emotions like “proud”, “disappointed”, and “forgiving”.
Puss in Boots himself remains a fascinating mess of contradictions (he’s a macho outlaw who also behaves like a kitty cat — it’s a simple ploy that still remains remarkably effective), but the material he’s left to work with is sub-par: a catnip as weed joke is reused almost wholesale from Shrek 2, Humpty and a young Puss form “Bean Club” (officially making for the most dated Fight Club reference to date), and Kitty Softpaws’ hangout of choice is called “the Glitter Box”. So while the movie does have a few humorous moments/zingers of note, along with some splendid animation and action set pieces, the whole reason we’re here — the characters — just doesn’t help make Puss in Boots a compelling viewing. In short, Puss in Boots remains a great, compelling character that just so happens to be trapped inside a plodding, derivative film that bears his name.
The special features don’t add up to much, especially when you add in the 11-minute short that’s included in certain versions of the DVD set: The Three Diablos (which is fun if slight). We got a glut of promos from other DreamWorks animated films, numerous self-serving mini-docs (and an Easter Egg wherein Antonio Banderas attends the “cat premiere” of the film with such luminaries as “Leonardo DiCatrio” and “Robert Meowney, Jr.” — ugh), some decent deleted scenes, and some absolute time-killers on the Three Diablos set, including a pointless “keyboard cat” music box and a somewhat inexplicable documentary about a real-life cat in California that steals things. He’s called “Klepto Kitty”. One begins to wonder at what point DreamWorks is just messing with us to see if we’re paying attention.
In short, Puss in Boots aims to be pick of the litter, and its ambitions are commendable. However, with an uneven plot, a weak script, and some rather unimpressive new characters, this movie turns out to be nothing more than cinematic hairball.