Oh boy, I thought just one anthropomorphic feline desperado who wears boots, a hat, a belt (which is apparently just for show, considering he doesn’t wear pants) and who dexterously wields a sword with his abnormally opposable paws was silly when I first gazed at Puss In Boots in “Shrek 2.” Two uninspired sequels later, Puss has finally been granted a shot at filling the green ogre’s boots and carrying the torch for a dying franchise in the spin-off aptly titled “Puss In Boots.” To my surprise, Puss is clearly not the only adorable kitten with boots and fencing skills that would make Zorro weep with jealousy.
The other kitten is a seductive female warrior named Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) who meets our hero Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) through a procedure not all that different from the way Jack Sparrow meets Penélope Cruz’s character in “Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” In his daunting mission of swiping the magic beans from the beastly twin outlaws Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, respectively), Puss spots a masked cat who is also covetous of those glowing green lima beans. Neither of them succeeds at recovering the enchanted produce, but Puss follows this mysterious animal back to a “cat cantina” only to find out…SURPRISE! Your equally matched opponent is really a female!
Kitty Softpaws is in cahoots with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), a sentient egg (another curious oddity) who shares an unfortunate past with Puss. Both of them grew up in an orphanage in the city of San Ricardo and both harbored impassioned dreams of one day finding the mystical magic beans, which would be used to grow a towering beanstalk up from the dirt. This beanstalk would lead to a giant’s castle in the clouds, wherein the legendary golden goose and its valuable golden eggs are kept. Puss and Humpty were like two peas in a pod during their salad days (no pun intended).
But as they got older, their friendship and values started heading in opposite directions. Puss becomes a town hero after performing an audacious act of heroism, while Humpty remains a troublemaker without a cause. Both have put their once burning childhood desire for nabbing the golden goose behind them and have moved on to define themselves. However, Humpty implicates the credulous kitten in a criminal act and publicly shames him in front of all the townspeople. Puss has no choice but to flee from the town’s reproachful eyes. From that day on, he had to rebuild his shattered legacy from the ground up.
When the film cuts back to the present, Humpty now asks his sworn brother to forgive him and join him in his scheme to steal Jack’s magic beans, which are clenched tightly in his fist and reinforced with a sealed wooden box for extra protection. Puss is initially skeptical, understandably so. What Humpty did in the past destroyed his reputation forever and his sudden intention to mend their broken friendship seems a bit…well, I already said it: sudden. But based solely on their drive to accomplish the same goal and the irresistible allure of Kitty Softpaws, Puss concedes to Humpty’s proposal, and the trio embarks on their epic quest.
Okay, ‘epic’ might be just a tad hyperbolic, but it is an exuberant and colorful adventure nonetheless and it is amusing as far as it goes along. For an animated movie that is a constant plate spinning act of quick humor, expeditious action scenes and simple yet ambitious storytelling (maybe a few pop-culture references here and there), I believe “Puss In Boots” had a steadier handle on its balancing sticks and broke far less plateware than “Rango,” another critical darling from earlier this year that sadly wore on me after thirty minutes. Not that “Puss In Boots” is much longer than thirty minutes, but I still liked it.
In spite of a few discrepancies in Humpty Dumpty’s later motivations and the more vengeful details in his duplicitous schemes (did the people of San Ricardo automatically forgive him for his past crimes or what?), I thought the relationship between him and Puss In Boots was the most engaging aspect of the film. Their telling backstory is presented through an extended flashback, where these two orphanage outcasts are brought together by the fact that they ARE outcasts. Of course, they find that they are both fascinated in the same ancient folklore, and both have big dreams of success. When Puss finally gains success in the public eye, it seems like envy that propels Humpty to deceive him. However, the outcome of this event stuck with Humpty just as much as it did with our hero. For revealing himself to be somewhat of a bad egg later on, his reasons as to why he behaves that way kinda make sense.
“Puss In Boots” is not as wickedly satirical or hilarious as the first “Shrek,” nor is it as visually arresting as “How To Train Your Dragon.” It is, however, charming in its own way and I am stunned at how well the title character stands on his own without Shrek or Donkey anywhere in sight. In fact, the film itself is pretty far removed from the “Shrek” series entirely. The environment is more gritty and worn than the traditionally “storybook illustration” aesthetic of the other series. Just when I didn’t think anything Shrek-related could redeem itself in my eyes again. Even with two characters named Jack and Jill, the film temporarily took my mind off a certain disgrace to cinema that will not be named. I wish it could have lasted permanently.