Puss in Boots
Director: Chris Miller / Screenplay: Tom Wheeler / Editing: Erika Dapkewicz / DP (Head of Layout): Gil Zimmerman / Music: Henry Jackman
Cast: Antonio Banderas / Salma Hayek / Zach Galifianakis / Billy Bob Thornton / Amy Sedaris / Constance Marie / Guillermo del Toro
Somehow, DreamWorks Animation has methodically built a sizeable catalogue of animated features, using IP that largely forgo the usual Disney staples of reluctant and/or confused heroes & heroines, looking to transcend their lowly and/or limited place in their world.
Just look at the roster: you may not have watched any, but you’ll almost certainly have heard of How to Train Your Dragon, Madagascar & Kung Fu Panda. Just three franchises, whose mass-market awareness stands testament to the insight & reach of film marketing, when aimed at the mass audience.
But looming over them all, is
probably indisputably the Shrek franchise. Based on the children’s novel by the late William Steig, the original 2001 movie spawned three sequels, a stage show and this spin-off movie, based on one of the most beloved characters in the entire enterprise: Puss-in-Boots.
Key to an animated character’s success, is the casting of the voice talent underpinning it and, in the case of Puss, the producers of Shrek 2 (2004) struck gold with Antonio Banderas. A Spanish actor, Banderas first came to the attention of English-speaking audiences with a breakout role in Robert Rodriguez’ action thriller Desperado (1995). From there, The Big Time called in perhaps his most famous English-speaking role: as the lead in The Mask of Zorro (1998); a swashbuckling part for which Banderas seemed born to play…
Having based their interpretation of the character on a shameless homage to Zorro, it seemed natural for Shrek 2’s producers to cast the very actor who’d sparkled in the role; it also helped that Banderas’ speaking voice has a deliciously seductive timbre. Indeed, Banderas’ infusion of character was so persuasive, that the animators fell in-step, introducing a playful ‘derring do’ aspect to Puss’ depiction. The end result proved so popular with audiences, that a spin-off seemed inevitable; luckily, Banderas agreed. Boost your career & profile by lending your voice to an animated movie? That will only take a week or two? For which no laborious make-up is required and leaves you free to drive in to the studio from home?
What’s NOT to like?
In the event, Puss’ own movie was to come along a year-on from Shrek Forever After (2010); the last & weakest entry in what by then, had become a very tired franchise. Luckily for all concerned, if Puss in Boots proved anything, it was this: that as long as the voice talent is working for an audience on-screen and is harnessed to a genuinely witty script tailored for all audiences, you really can get away with a lack of anything else…
The ‘lack’ in this case, being that fundamental building block: story.
Things begin brightly enough, with Puss taking his leave of his latest conquest (a puff-ball of a grey-blue Persian) and leaving her with nothing but fond memories: but he’s discovered by her owner and chased out of the homestead; an introductory sequence that’s given a knowing V.O. by Banderas (‘What can I say? I was a bad kitty.’).
Arriving at the town of San Ricardo, on the evening it hosts the ‘Festival of the Fire and the Chicken’, Puss enters a murky cantina, which cues-in a slew of effective sight-gags that peak when we see him lap from a tumbler of milk. He learns of a big score that, if pulled-off, ‘Will clear my name’. The plot – such as it is – is introduced thus: ‘The murderous outlaws, Jack and Jill have got their hands on some magic beans.’
Uh-huh. I think I’ve heard – oh, wait. There’s more: ‘Only a cat with a death wish would steal the beans from Jack and Jill’.
[Deep breath]. I like the art direction in this movie. The artists & designers obviously immersed themselves in ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ and other films set in the Old West, particularly the border lands with Mexico. Buildings have terracotta tiles & adobe features. There’s a warm, sun-bleached drowsiness about the place and here, in the cantina-saloon, a real shadowy menace from denizens at the periphery. I think Verbinski’s Rango (2011) is doing all this better, but the art style on Puss has a bolder, less grittier look than Rango. Characters are drawn in a ‘lo-fi’ expressive style and match the film’s tone as much as its tenuous place within the same work as Shrek; one glance at the human characters and the relationship is clear). Henry Jackson’s score is also effective, with bright stabs of Spanish guitar infused with Flamenco beats & rhythms. This is an unashamedly Latino animated movie: and believe me, there aren’t many of them…
Where was I? Jack and Jill. A married couple, who drive an armoured wagon pulled by seven fiery-eyed demonic boars. In the back of a wagon that looks like a reject from Hanna Barbera’s Wacky Races (and seemingly its only cargo) is a small herd of boar-piglets, that act as ‘watch-pigs’ to Jack’s precious beans. They arrive at a hotel, in the courtyard of which, an accordionist serenades a pretty señorita. After the manager tells them there are no spare rooms, Jill shoots her flintlock pistol at an (unseen) patron, who promptly falls from the balcony. Director Chris Miller now puts his ‘camera’ down at the level of the cowering manger; from his VP, we see Jack loom over the counter:
Jack: ‘We’d like a complimentary Continental breakfast.’
Jill: ‘And don’t skip the baby muffins!’
Manager: [Sobbing to himself as the couple grab their key and stalk off] ‘We don’t have any baby muffins…’
[cue: A plangent dirge from the accordionist.]
The voiceover talents for this pair of miscreants are both well-versed in this line of work, being the gravel-voiced Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, who imbues more low-down menace into Jill, than Thornton’s Jack; it’s a remarkable delivery from Sedaris. Unfortunately, both these players are wasted in under-written parts, that turn-out to be mere ‘hench-persons’ to the film’s true villain.
No sooner have Jack & Jill settled in to their room, when they’re visited by Puss, natch, who espies Jack’s cunning locked box, that holds-the-hand-that-holds-the-beans; talk about detail, Jack: they’re glowing with magical potential as-well: surely it can’t be good for the health?
I digress. A mysterious figure joins Puss on the windowsill: another cat-burglar, this one a glossy black and wearing a Ninja-like face-mask. With Puss’ robbery foiled by his squabble with this interloper, we get a dizzying rooftop chase, as fireworks light-up the festival, with things ending at a subterranean bar – you might call it a ‘miaowseum’, though it’s actually called ‘The Glitter Box’; a name spelled-out in pink neon, with the exception of the ‘G’… After a Flamenco-inspired ‘dance fight’, Puss’ nemesis is revealed: Kitty Softpaws; a feline Señorita given life by the sultry voice of Salma Hayek. During the fight, Director Miller adopted a multi-pane, slo-mo approach to show various stages of a single piece of action, that harks back to the classics of Sixties’ Westerns from the likes of Sergio Leone. It’s a knowing hat-tip from Miller and I appreciated the effort.
But, wait! What’s this? Kitty has lured Puss here? ‘Fraid so. It was a set-up all along, to introduce Humpty Alexander Dumpty: a walking, talking and very untrustworthy egg, voiced by Zach Galifianakis. Of the trio of headline acts for this movie, I thought his contribution the least successful. The barebones script was lacking in-direction for all parts, true, but at least Banderas & Hayek were able to mine their repertoire and bring something memorable to their interpretations. Galifianakis just came across as a whiny, guilt-tripping, con-artist from the outset and brought nothing of note. His stock as a comedic actor was rising at the time and, I suspect, the producers wanted a ’name’ for the posters…
The brief reunion between old friends is soon over, with Puss unable to forgive Humpty for his past wrongdoing: all explained in a discursive flashback to ‘The Orphanage’ showing how he met ‘The Egg’. Even Kitty’s dozing when we return some minutes later, but that’s the unavoidable problem with an ‘origin story’: at some point, we have to see the hero before he becomes a hero and that can often be dull: which is as it should be, in order to provide a glamorous contrast to their later calling. The trick then, is in making it entertaining. Usually, with something like, say, a Superman movie, you pre-load the film with all this stuff. Putting it up-front draws your audience in and let’s them get a feel for the hero’s underlying ‘true quality’. But, we’ve already seen Puss numerous times in the Shrek movies, so we think we already know his character, making an origin-story near-superfluous. For those unfamiliar with Shrek, Director Miller cleverly moved the necessary sequence to round-out the movie’s first act. It provides a ‘paws’ before the ramshackle plot grinds-on.
There’s another chase, as our now-united trio stage an elaborate robbery to relieve Jack of his, err, beans. Successful in their endeavours (was there any doubt?) they reach the ‘planting zone’ as-specified in Humpty’s book of beanstalk lore and await developments. While we wait for the beanstalk to sprout, it’s a good time to mention that, to this point, no-one’s actually owning-up to how Jack got the beans in the first place, or how Humpty acquired all the beany-factoids in his book. Just saying…
After a roiling, blue storm-cloud has whipped-up a fair impression of the twister from Wizard of Oz (1939) a seedling duly sprouts before abruptly lifting our trio up to the clouds, as it grows at rocket-speed.
We then get some fun with helium. An object lesson in the surprising weight of pure gold. An abduction. Escape (I hope I’m not giving too much away, here). Then a twist, which observant viewers will have seen coming a mile-off. An eggcellent conclusion to a redemptive arc and then we’re done at a little over eighty-minutes-plus-change. That’s the sweet spot: long enough to keep the little one’s interested, but not enough to bore them. Plus, with such a short running time, theatres get to programme multiple showings on-release, thus boost takings.
Problems? There are a few…
First of all, the ‘story’ is about as barebones as it had to be yet, at-times, is so illogical as to make little sense, leaving Puss in Boots as a series of action sequences that, in isolation, bear little relationship to character or plot. They’ve been strung together like beat-points in a musical score; their placement & ‘timing’, both in duration and the kinetic freneticism displayed, escalating to a sort-of-crescendo once our heroes return to Earth and face the consequences for their rash endeavour.
Then there’s the issue of Humpty’s
story character-arc. In a nutshell, the character exhibits a petty jealousy over Puss’ elevation to the status of local folk hero and tricks him into acting as his ‘wheelman’ in a bank robbery; it’s the ‘inciteful incident’, from which Puss is branded ‘outlaw’. Fast-forward to the present and here’s Humpty repeating the trick in a far subtler manner; guilt-tripping Puss to visit ‘the Giant’s castle’ and steal The Golden Goose (again, stop me me if you’ve heard this one).
I came away puzzled, not so much by Humpty’s motivation, but the extent of the highly-ambitious plot he wove ‘whilst in prison’ and the apparent ruthlessness with which he carries it out. AND SUCCEEDS! Talk about giving your audience a conflicted message…
Somehow, Humpty steals both the instructions & beans from his cellmate, the ‘real’ Jack-the-Giant-Killer. He then assembles a crack team of accomplices (including Kitty, Puss’ eventual love interest) and all remain loyal, following his plan without question, even when apparent cannon-fire is unleashed during the wagon-chase… Humpty does retrieve the goose. He does provide the people with gold. He does succeed in having Puss jailed for the old bank-job, thanks to a craven Comandante (voiced by Guillermo del Toro, a co-producer); this, after Puss once saved his mother’s life… Humpty Alexander Dumpty succeeds in a villainous plan executed with all the guile & panache of Keyser Söze and is only thwarted by the Deus-ex-Machina intervention of Mother Goose!
What message all that’s instilling in an impressionable audience, I’ll leave you to ponder…
Finally, I want to bemoan the film’s lack of ambition; its dearth of any ‘big ideas’. It’s a spin-off project, made for a modest budget by a ‘B-team’ of creatives out to prove their various competencies. I get it, I really do.
But: it could’ve been so much more! If poverty really is the mother of invention, then this project
could might should have fostered a scrappy pugnacity to really make something memorable. The film-makers opted for a bitty origin story wrapped around a thin ‘revenge-heist’ plot but it begs the question: What if they’d been braver?
What if they’d dispensed with the origin story altogether and instead opted to develop a fully-featured, cohesively-plotted tale with a three-act structure? Maybe, something that could’ve begun with Puss engaging with Kitty in some adventure, which ends with a journey to a distant land, Far Far Away and that first encounter with Shrek & Donkey?
In the end, this is a kid’s movie. A disposable piece of filler squeezed from Dreamworks production line and built to a template that, dare I suggest, is every bit as restrictive as that pioneered – and perfected – by Disney. What lifts the movie, are the gags, both written & visual, that serve to round-out character. I just wish the film-makers involved, had instead pursued a braver path in their role as the ‘B-team’ and cast-off both convention & expectation, in-pursuit of something original, that would do justice to Banderas’ & Hayek’s vocal talents. Had they done so, this could’ve been another franchise-in-the-making (see The Lego Movie).
With a thudding inevitability, Puss in Boots was a case of ‘one and done’.
Err… Not quite! It seems that Puss made so much money for DreamWorks, that it threw-in sixty-odd episodes of a made-for-TV cartoon project, featuring other voice talent, just to bleed every last drop of potential from the husk.
This is your San Ricardo weather report. Chance of a giant Goose destroying the town? One hundred per-cent.