Saturday, April 8, 2023

Puss in Boots (2011) - Somebody Once Told Me...

Only a year after the release of Shrek Forever After, DreamWorks began releasing a series of spin-offs starring the supporting character Puss in Boots, who more or less took over the franchise for over a decade. The first entry, simply titled Puss in Boots, came out in 2011 during the studio’s partnership with Paramount, who notably distributed Kung Fu Panda, a film that influenced them to focus more on strong storytelling over celebrity cameos and pop culture references (among other aspects brought on by the success of Shrek). While I was aware of Puss in Boots, I didn’t actually watch it until the strength of its sequel, The Last Wish, fueled my curiosity in how well it stacks up by comparison. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original isn’t as good, though it’s still pretty good on its own merits and helps demonstrate that even early on, DreamWorks’ pivot was for the better.

Years before the events of Shrek 2, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is a fugitive seeking to restore his lost honor. In a bar, he learns that the outlaws Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) are in possession of magic beans and breaks into their hideout with the intent of stealing them. Unfortunately, his stealing attempt is interrupted by Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), a thief whom Puss learns was hired by Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), Puss’ estranged friend. Puss reluctantly teams up with Humpty, believing their partnership the only way to retrieve the beans so they can fulfill their childhood dream of using them to get to a giant’s castle and retrieve the golden eggs within.

For his first outing, Puss shows that he could indeed carry his own movie. The more character-driven approach results in a very solid story that covers themes of friendship, trust and betrayal quite nicely. Puss’ backstory makes him more sympathetic, with his relationship with Humpty informing his past and motivating his present, especially once we understand the extent of Humpty’s role in Puss’ status as an outlaw. Humpty himself is also an interesting character with a consistent motivation and, through a neat twist in the third act, shows how the same past event can impact people in very different ways, in this case how they both felt some sense of betrayal. Just after the film’s climax, their adventure culminates in a twist ending that makes a lot of sense in hindsight thanks to some careful foreshadowing, though I’m aware from my own viewing that some viewers may not pick up on it right away.

Puss (Antonio Banderas, center) has an interesting dynamic with
Humpty (Zach Galifianakis, left) and Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, right).

Puss in Boots also notably introduced Kitty Softpaws, who would later return in The Last Wish. Her debut leaves an impression, as she’s able to go toe to toe with Puss, both in thievery and in combat, and acts as a good foil for him. Although her backstory may be very similar to that of Mittens from Disney’s Bolt, which came out three years prior, it still adds a good amount of depth to her character and comes up at a very appropriate moment.

I should also note that although this film emphasizes having a stronger story, it does still retain some elements of the classic Shrek humor, even if they are downplayed. These include the presence of slapstick and the “fractured fairy tales” angle, though the latter is worked more naturally into the plot. Also absent are the anachronisms and more obvious caricatures, though the music does still include at least one licensed track in “Americano” by Lady Gaga.

After over a decade, the animation certainly feels dated compared to modern standards, but it still looks pretty good for the time. Characters look very expressive and the lighting effects, as well as the liquids, look pretty good. Since Puss and Kitty Softpaws are prominent throughout, it’s good that, for the most part, they nailed having realistic fur that looks soft. That said, Humpty’s appearance looks odd and can take a little getting used to when he first shows up.

The animation still looks good for the time it was made.

Fortunately, the film also has great voice acting, not just from Antonio Banderas, but Salma Hayek as well, among others. Considering the sorts of roles Zach Galifianakis was known for before this film, it feels impressive that he turned in a fairly serious performance as Humpty Dumpty while still displaying some good comedic timing.

Whether or not you’ve seen The Last Wish first, Puss in Boots is a fun, if imperfect, film. As an early entry in DreamWorks Animation’s post-Kung Fu Panda shift to a focus on stronger storytelling, it does its job showing the potential in expanding the Shrek universe pretty well.

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