What if a real hero had seen too many movies with fantasy heroes? That’s Puss in Boots, who’s compelled to buttress his courage, resourcefulness and expert swordsmanship with a swagger ill-suiting a tiny ginger cat in a giant sombrero and shoes with high heels. To an adversary he whispers, “Fear me—if you dare.” After intimidating a man ten times his size, he snarls menacingly, “Do you want to make the cat angry?” No question he’s spent too much time watching the Eastwood-Leone Westerns, Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride, a slew of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn swashbucklers and the two Zorro films starring Antonio Banderas.
The last is OK because Banderas voices Puss, and because the movie’s comedy rests and soars on the little guy’s enormous, ingratiating ego. It’s the main, well-sustained joke in director Chris Miller’s agreeably modest film—colorful flotsam that survived the slow sinking of the Shrek series. As Mike Myers & Co. turned more stridently aimless toward the end of this animated film quartet, the Puss character retained his blithe insouciance. Having exhausted ideas involving the ogre and his princess, DreamWorks promoted this supporting figure to stardom. He and Banderas wear their celebrity handsomely.
(MORE: Read Richard Corliss’ Picks for the Top 25 Animated Films of All-TIME)
Like the Shreks, Puss in Boots (directed by Chris Miller) raids the fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme canon, with appearances by Humpty Dumpty (Zack Galifianakis), Jack and Jill (though, in their hulking figures, bullying disposition and the gruff vocal work by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, the water-fetchers are closer to Gog and Magog), the goose that laid the golden egg (much smaller and cuddlier than the legend, a cousin to Disney’s Chicken Little) and his angry parent, Mother Goose herself (so huge and threatening that she is this movie’s Goosezilla).
Humpty is Puss’ childhood frenemy: pal, rival and seemingly inept marplot to our hero’s suave efficiency in a crisis. In the orphanage he shared with Puss, H.D. was the youthful butt of excruciating jokes (or eggscruciating yolks). Ever since, he has sought revenge against the world, Puss possibly included, as he searches for the magic beans from yet another fractured fairy tale. Galifianakis lends a plaintive weasely quality to the character, and the script by Ted Wheeler (from a story by David H. Steinberg and Jon Zack) let audiences decide whether Humpty deserves to be welcomed into their hearts or consigned to the Dumpster.
If Puss’ choice of friend is debatable, his love interest is not. Kitty Softpaws (the easy-on-the-ears Salma Hayek) shares Puss’ skill at larceny — “I’ll rob you blind and you’ll never know I was there” — and love of flamenco. Their introductory dance fight, as other cats strum and pound away as their backup band, sizzles with the choreographic ardor of Astaire and Rogers (except that he’s the ginger). She can always be counted on to save endangered chickens and eggs in the film’s stunt-laden action scenes, inspired, as usual, by Indiana Jones movies.
Quite properly, Puss is the star. Character animator Oliver Staphylas makes him a figure of charm and humor—a dandy (the eyeliner) who’s gone ever so slightly to seed (the paunch). This little Lothario is a stone-cold heartbreaker, but often his own, when Kitty gets her back up. On the furry surface he’s proud and self-reliant, but with a possible addiction to catnip: “Because of my glaucoma,” he protests. And in a crisis he’ll revert to his fretful, big-eyed kitten look. Hey, if it works for the YouTube menagerie, why not for Puss?
Rated PG, the film is fine for the kids, excepting a couple of jokes about jail rape and golden cojones, and for most adults — though feline fanciers, presumably one of the film’s target demographics, take a thoughtless hit when Kitty observes that “Cat people are crazy.” All ages of viewers should find Puss easy on the eyes: its sophisticated palette boasts every shade from noirish mahogany for the night scenes to fleecy pastels for the gang’s trip to Beanstalk Heaven.
In a way, Puss is a real hero for an autumn movie season deficient in fun. And it’s fine by me if the charismatic cat has several lives in sequels. Just not nine, please.
(MORE: Top 10 Dog Movies)