The Shrek franchise has aged terribly. Once considered the sharpest and most refreshing animation out there, it has since been lapped (and lapped again) by recent Pixar efforts and even one-offs like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Everything from the character designs to the supposedly ‘adult’ sense of humour seems dated and wildly out-of-touch. Shrek Forever After was a noble attempt to retire the series once and for all, and it coasted on a sense of finality and (long missing) sentimentality. Chris Miller’s prequel/spin-off Puss in Boots, sadly, does not have that luxury. Though much of the dead weight has been dropped and the focus has shifted towards its best invention, Puss still suffers from much of the same issues that plagued its predecessors.
But credit where credit is due. Antonio Banderas is so much fun as Puss, the Latin lover and swashbuckler that makes his own Zorro seem as stiff as Urkel. We first meet him as he sneaks away from his previous night’s conquest (bold choice!), wishing the pussy-cat farewell, grabbing his boots and bolting out the window. He travels from town to town, striking fear in the men and breaking the hearts of the women. When he learns burly toughs Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) have gotten their hands on the fabled magic beans, he takes it upon himself to steal them, grow the beanstalk and nab some of those golden eggs from the Giant’s palace. But he’s beaten to the punch by Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), a smooth and sultry cat-burglar (geddit) working for Puss’ old friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). The lone-gato is invited to join their band of criminals – the Bean Club – and to help them steal the sky-high treasure. He may be walking into a trap, but he’s far too pre-occupied with his sassy feline accomplice to worry about it too much.
The picture starts strongly, and the time spent with Puss as he establishes his legend – rather hilariously – across Mexico is appreciated. Things get sticky when we meet that big egg Humpty, who is depicted as unimaginatively as you can, well, imagine. Galifianakis is a funny guy, but he’s also a physical presence. As a voice actor, he loses many of his strengths; his underwhelming vocal performance combined with a boring representation of a talking egg means the picture’s primary antagonist is a fairly dull one. Also, though the film is clearly a western pastiche, that’s no excuse for the dreary set design and lacklustre orange hues of the animation. It becomes so tiresome on the eyes (although one sequence set above the clouds inspires a gasp or two). Rango was an even more committed tribute to Sergio Leone films and tales of turn-of-the-century outlaws, and it never once looked anything other than gorgeous. Where the visuals fail, the script does not pick up the slack. Tom Wheeler, David H. Steinberg and Brian Lynch’s screenplay plods along, and not even the occasional prison-rape joke can make it come to life.
Puss in Boots is still a wonderful character, and it’s nice to see him going out on his own. Unfortunately, he remains encumbered by the ghosts of his past (or rather, his chronological future). The poster may say otherwise, but this is still ‘a Shrek movie’. For some, that is good news. I personally hope Puss can further distance himself from that saga’s tone, humour and visual style in the inevitable sequel.
Puss in Boots arrives in Australian cinemas December 8.