By now, you are probably pretty sure of how you feel regarding the “Shrek” franchise. I think it has been a lovely example of the law of diminishing returns as they’ve milked it way past the point of dry. I forget the name of the last movie, and I’m so uninterested in it that I don’t even feel the urge to look it up. It struck me as a lazy cash-grab, and as a result, when I walked in to see “Puss In Boots,” it was with dread more than anything.
Thankfully, “Puss In Boots” is not a “Shrek” film. At all.
It’s so disconnected from the series that I have no idea where it takes place in the timeline of the “Shrek” series. Before? After? Doesn’t matter. “Puss In Boots” stands on its own, and it’s better for doing so. It is a very silly film, a big adventure movie, and surprisingly effective. It’s not easy to spin off a popular supporting character into his own movie, and yet this feels completely natural. It helps that Antonio Banderas seems to fully understand the ludicrous nature of the film, and his performance is nuanced and hilarious, a charming riff on his own bigscreen image.
The movie plays up the notion of Puss In Boots as a legendary outlaw, and it tells the story of how he ended up on the run from the law in the first place. It also tells the story of how he comes to redeem himself as a hero, using his complicated relationship with his childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and their life-long quest to find Jack’s beanstalk and the Golden Goose atop it as the structural spine of the film. One of the ways the film immediately distinguishes itself from the “Shrek” series is by making almost no pop culture jokes. Instead, whatever humor there is in the film (and there’s a lot) comes from the characters themselves and the world around them. There is a wild absurdity to a world in which cats walk around sword-fighting and talking and in which a large anthropomorphic egg can be a career criminal, and the film never flinches from that absurdity. Instead, it embraces it and plays it straight, which only makes the weirdest elements even funnier.
The other main relationship that defines Puss in this film is with Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), a skilled pickpocket who works for Humpty Dumpty. They meet under tense circumstances, and what follows is as rousing a sequence of rooftop-pursuit-and-battle-as-foreplay as anything in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” They have tremendous chemistry together, even just as vocal performers, and they both do great work here. As with any good story of outlaws in love, there are double and triple crosses built into the narrative, and hidden agendas driving much of the film’s plot. It might actually be a bit complicated for very young viewers to follow, but it’s nice to see a film that is aimed at young audiences that still treats them as narratively sophisticated. This movie has not been aggressively dumbed down like many of the “kid’s films” that I see, and the script by Brian Lynch, David H. Steinberg, Tom Wheeler, and Jon Zack is busy but never frantic, mature but never wink-wink filthy, and thrilling without being too adult.
Chris Miller has definitely grounded this in the “Shrek” world visually, but there’s a richness of palette here that the “Shrek” films don’t have. The human characters have been softened up a bit, and of the new designs, Humpty Dumpty is the stand-out by far. I’ve seen the film twice now (once for review, once just to take the kids back so they could see it), and I still find myself fascinated by Dumpty. He’s both repellant and hypnotic. There is something profoundly wrong about him in general, but the performance by Galifianakis is so human and grounded and sincere that he comes across as one of the most genuinely alive animated characters in recent memory. It’s a pretty tremendous addition to the series overall. Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton also do strong work as the disturbing Jack and Jill, a deranged married couple who look like brother and sister, career criminals who have the magic beans that Puss, Kitty, and Humpty need to find the beanstalk.
Like I said… this is a very silly movie in many ways, but Miller found just the right tone, and the score by Henry Jackman is a knockout, really helping to give this movie the dramatic weight it needs and also underlining the thrill inherent to the film’s big action sequences. “Puss In Boots” is a true surprise, a creative spike in a series I thought was dead, and if you end up taking your kids to see it, you may find yourself shocked by just what a good time you have as an adult.
“Puss In Boots” opens everywhere on Friday.