It's been six years since Antonio Banderas last donned Zorro's mask on the silver screen. But the Spanish thespian kept his suave, sword-wielding desperado persona intact as the scene-stealing feline sidekick in the animated Shrek franchise and has finally clawed his way into the spotlight in the gravity-defying spin-off spectacle Puss in Boots.
When last we saw the ginger Puss, in the fourth and final Shrek flick, he (like so many retired mousers and action stars) had kicked off his boots and become a pampered flabby house pet.
But the folks at DreamWorks have taken a tip from the superhero universe and scratched out an action-packed origin story for the kitty – one that bears closer resemblance (in specific scenes) to Spaghetti Westerns, the Step Up dance movies, The Usual Suspects and Godzilla than it does to "Le Maître Chat ou Le Chat Botté," the story penned by Charles Perrault for his 17th-century collection that popularized Puss (not to mention Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella et al.) for the ages.
While Puss's fame as a character has endured, the Perrault fairy tale (Puss uses his kitty wiles to convince the king that his master, a miller's son, is a rich marquis worthy of the princess's hand in marriage) hasn't exactly enchanted animators. Walt Disney turned Puss into a bullfighter in his 1922 Laugh-O-Gram short; in 1934, Ub Iwerks paired him with a bagpipe player and a litter of kittens to rescue a princess from an ogre.
In those shorts, and subsequent animated and live-action versions of the story, the weakest link is Puss's master – a bumpkin compared to the loquacious, quick-witted cat. What Puss needs is a worthy foil. And the DreamWorks team, striving to cook up a buddy comedy, certainly hatched one in Humpty Dumpty, voiced by man-boy du jour Zach Galifianakis ( The Hangover).
The eggman takes over Puss's role as crafty instigator from Perrault's fairy tale. Humpty is not only all face (visually speaking) but two-faced, as we learn in a flashback story that Puss relates to Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) – a mysterious cat-burglar-for-hire and, unfortunately, a lacklustre token female character who serves as a romantic partner for Puss.
Growing up in the orphanage in the village of San Ricardo, Puss and Humpty became fast friends and partners in petty crime until Puss saved the local lawman's mother and decided to go straight. After Humpty tricked Puss into participating in a bank heist, the egg got picked up by (you guessed it) all the king's men and thrown into jail, while Puss fell into life on the lam.
Now the recently escaped Humpty is trying to recruit Puss in an elaborate scheme to steal a handful of magic beans from Jack and Jill (a thuggish couple wonderfully voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris).
Puss reluctantly agrees to put the past behind him only after Humpty promises that any booty retrieved from the top of the beanstalk will be used to pay back the bank and, thus, restore their honour in the village.
The film's standout sequence is a surreal adventure into the clouds where Puss, Kitty and Humpty eventually find the golden-egg-laying goose (actually a gosling). Not surprisingly, as soon as they hit the ground, the egg flips again.
Puss in Boots is essentially non-stop dazzling action scenes loosely connected by a thin, predictable story of greed versus good. Of course, Shrek humour also invades this fairy tale landscape (a dusty desert in contrast to the lush forests of Shrek). At one point, Puss's catnip stash is confiscated – "it's for my glaucoma," he pleads.
Banderas's fabulous vocal performance gives real weight to Puss – you swear the guy is wearing a cat suit – but overall the character is more reactive than active. It's the morally-cracked Humpty who provides the film's emotional trajectory. Puss in Boots is a fun feline frolic – with just a little egg on its face.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Puss in Boots
- Directed by Chris Miller
- Screenplay by Tom Wheeler
- Starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris
- Classification: G