Saturday, October 29, 2011

FIRST THE FOX, THEN THE BAT, NOW THE CAT'S WHERE IT'S AT: "Puss N' Boots" an enjoyable flick.

It's not "Shrek". That's a good thing.

The original "Shrek" was an original crowd pleaser, but it was based on a gimmick; one that had worn out its welcome by its first sequel.  What saved that film, and arguably the same for its subsequent sequels, was the character of Puss N' Boots, voiced with charm by Antonio Banderas. In fact, Puss was the only entertaining element in the (hopefully) final film "Shrek Ever After". The character has been spun off into his own eponymous film (directed by Chris Miller and produced by Guillermo Del Toro [who also voices a couple of characters], among others, and acting as a prequel of sorts to Puss' involvement in the "Shrek" series) and it wisely eschews all references to the franchise that spawned it while at the same time paying subtle homage to other films. 

From the film's onset, the movie  sets out to remind you that Antonio Banderas starred in two "Zorro" films. From the opening Spanish guitar strumming reminiscent of James Horner's composition in those films, to Bandera's opening, smoldering line delivery, and the sword slashed "P", the film hammers in that point almost as if to give an air of authenticity to the following proceedings, working as both parody and validation; not that such is needed. The Puss character was the much needed shot in the arm the "Shrek" series needed. "Shrek" was built upon pop culture references, seemingly bludgeoning the audience with them. Here, all types of references are presented subtly, so they enhance the story as opposed to having a story inserted between them (aside from the obvious "Zorro" references, Ricardo Montalban, the "Vazquez Rocks/Kirk Rocks", the stylings of Sergio Leon, and Batman, and an in-joke to a previous Puss situation, among others).

But there is a story here. Puss (Antonio Banderas) is an outlaw seeking to clear his name for a crime he did not commit and is in search of the magic beans from the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk in order to find redemption.  He must enter into an uneasy partnership with the brother that betrayed him, Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and sneak thief extraordinare, a real "Catwoman" Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, who re-teams with Banderas for the fifth time on film) to steal the beans from Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sadaris) to steal the goose that lays the golden eggs.  The animation is top notch and the characterizations are more fluid here than ever, which is to be expected given the advances in Dreamworks' animation department since the first Shrek film (however, the film suffered slightly from the presentation of the trailer for the forthcoming "The Adventures of Tintin" from Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, wherein the animation in that trailer showed how close computer CGI is advancing to actually be life-like). The most visually disturbing character is Dumpty himself. A giant egg with a big face, the milky fluidity of the character seemed like an albino, smoothed out Jabba the Hut, only creepier; a feeling enhanced by Galifianakis' line delivery.

But however good the animation is, a film is made or broken by its main character, and rare is the instance when a second banana character (in animation or live action) transitions to the lead. With his Alejandro Murrieta/De La Vega delivery, Banderas' Puss owns this film.  Hayek provides G rated, Selina Kyle tension to her role as Kitty, being seductively feisty and provides a worthy counterpoint to the ginger cat in the hat. Thorton and Sardis' characters, while visually menacing, are rather amusing in their delivery. 

The story is lightweight in tone and presentation, as it should be. It is a story for children but by the same token is engaging and entertaining enough for adults as well. It does not present as much tongue in cheek, self-aware laughs as the first "Shrek" did, but by the same token it is enjoyable enough that it really isn't an issue. The film is as entertaining as watching a cat chasing a laser pointer in futility. Puss wears his boots well.

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