Friday, October 28, 2011

Puss in Boots: The cat's pajamas

Puss in Boots (2011) • View trailer for Puss in Boots
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.28.11

I greeted the impending arrival of Puss in Boots, roughly a year ago, with a skeptical eye.

Popular sidekicks, putting too much faith in their perceived importance, occasionally make a bid for personal stardom. The effort rarely succeeds, although Hollywood seems to encourage such behavior; the television landscape is littered with the remnants of secondary characters spun off into their own shows ... which generally tank in record time.
Having climbed a most unusual beanstalk and reached a verdant land above the
clouds, our mercenary heroes — from left, Humpty Dumpty (disguised as a
golden egg), Kitty Softpaws and Puss in Boots — part the vegetation and
glimpse a most amazing sight.

The reason? Basic chemistry. Supporting characters who “work” as part of an ensemble fail on their own because the formula’s other equally important ingredients have been left behind.

Exceptions exist, but several dozen bombs such as The Ropers (from Three’s Company) and The Tortellis (Cheers) exist for every Frasier (also Cheers) and Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But despite such dreadful odds, folks keep trying.

Nor is the big screen immune to such behavior; The Scorpion King, derived from the recent Mummy series, certainly did nothing for Dwayne Johnson’s career.

Granted, things are different with animated characters: no egos involved. All of which brings us to Puss in Boots, named for the suave feline sword-wielder from the Shrek series, voiced with such hilarious swagger by Antonio Banderas ... and he’s no less entertaining here. Put simply, Banderas was born to voice this character; he’s one cool cat.

Chalk up this spinoff, then, under the “successful” column. Director Chris Miller’s prequel — these events take place before Puss meets up with the jolly green ogre — offers a solid plot and all the snarky humor that has made the Shrek entries so much fun.

That said, Puss’ roster of supporting players isn’t quite as memorable. Zach Galifianakis’ Humpty Dumpty is a pale shadow of Eddie Murphy’s Donkey, and we don’t get nearly as many incidental storybook characters to spice up various scenes. But — credit where due — Salma Hayek contributes plenty of spunk as the saucy, catty Kitty Softpaws, a spirited hellcat with the allure to corral Puss’ roving eye and make his fur fly.

Banderas and Hayek easily hold this film together, even when dealing with the generally bland and annoying Galifianakis.

All good-hearted rogues of classical myths are wronged heroes, and Puss is no different. We meet him as a wanted fugitive; the details behind his “crime” date back to his origins as an orphan in the hard-scrabble town of San Ricardo, where as a kitten he befriends a shunned young egg dubbed Humpty Dumpty. The two become inseparable best buds, sharing a dream involving fabled magic beans that, if planted properly, will produce a beanstalk that rises to a giant’s castle ... and, most importantly, a goose that lays golden eggs.

Puss goes along with this nonsense because, well, friends support each other. But Humpty becomes obsessed by this vision; obsession encourages his ethics to stray in the wrong direction. Eventually, inevitably, Puss smells a rat; the friendship is severed by different values and, mostly, by betrayal.

All this emerges via back-story, as Puss now pursues those magic beans on his own. A stray tip obtained in a saloon leads him to the monstrously thuggish Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), red-necked brutes who — amazingly — actually possess the trio of glowing green beans. But Jack and Jill are ruffians of a dangerous sort, which leads Puss to a bit of late-night cat-burgling.

Puss isn’t the only local feline with such thoughts; his caper is interrupted by a black-masked schemer who turns out to be Kitty Softpaws. Puss is willing to embrace this much of a partnership (literally!), but when he learns that Kitty is allied with Humpty ... well, some transgressions are difficult to forgive.

Still, they must be forgiven — else we’d not have a story — and so Puss, Kitty and Humpty craft a plan to obtain the beans (somehow!), in the hopes of planting them in the proper spot, locating the golden goose and (perhaps) clearing Puss’ good name in San Ricardo.

Naturally, nothing goes quite as planned.

Scripters Brian Lynch, David H. Steinberg, Tom Wheeler and Jon Zack — all but the latter newcomers to this franchise — achieve the fractured fairy tale tone so essential to the Shrek series. The one-liners are choice, and the plot setbacks and twists are reasonable within the context of these surroundings.

Mostly, though, we can’t help admiring Banderas’ rich, sardonic handling of Puss, who — like Pepe Le Pew, the infamous Warner Bros. skunk — fancies himself the world’s greatest lover. And, on the basis of available evidence, he deserves to grin like a Cheshire cat. We can hear it in Banderas’ ironic tone: Puss isn’t a boastful braggart, because he IS capable of everything he claims.

That said, Hayek’s Kitty has no trouble bringing Puss down a claw or two, and she’s quite adept at her own catty remarks. We can tell, from Hayek’s tone, that Kitty has been around the litter box a few times, and isn’t about to be impressed by the first booted, sword-wielding orange tom that flicks a tail in her direction. Particularly when she’s so adept at stealing those boots, without being noticed.

Galifianakis’ Humpty, alas, is a different story. The character simply isn’t very interesting; more crucially, Galifianakis never allows us to get a bead on Humpty. Whether behaving badly, nobly or somewhere in between, he always sounds like a sourpuss with an angle; one can’t imagine why Puss ever would believe anything Humpty says.

This is a common failing these days, when a single year can generate a couple dozen animated films: Celebrity flavors of the month are far more likely to get a shot at voicing a cartoon character. But not everybody is born for such work; animated films need to be “cast” as rigorously as any other type. Most of Galifianakis’ appeal derives from his physical appearance and behavior; his voice, on its own, delivers too little oomph.

Then, too, Humpty is under-developed as a concept. Once we get past the (too) oft-repeated gag involving his inability to get up when knocked over, and the litany of obvious puns — his stay in prison wasn’t “over-easy” — there’s no place else to go.

Fortunately, Puss and Kitty carry the day. Miller and editor Eric Dapkewicz pace the film well, and the story doesn’t overstay its welcome. And, as is true of the Shrek films, the screen and narrative are filled with little bits of business: some verbal, some visual, some visible only for an eyeblink or two. The dialogue is piquant enough to keep adults amused; one off-color joke about the “golden eggs” draws a hearty laugh, and a few other, similarly blue lines will draw older grins while (probably) flying over the heads of younger viewers.

The many “cat gags” also are well used, whether Puss’ style of “downing” a shot of milk, or his sudden determination to catch a dancing blob of light. (Dug’s frenzied response to the single word “squirrel” comes to mind, in Up.)

Henry Jackman’s score is serviceable but not particularly memorable, although the animators do have fun with one music-laden “dance-off” between Puss and Kitty. And although film fans will get a kick out of knowing that writer/director Guillermo del Toro voices two minor characters, it’s not as if you could recognize him.

All in all, Puss in Boots is an engaging way to spend 90 minutes. The film cleverly augments and does not tarnish the Shrek franchise, and, really, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to hear Banderas get the most out of hilariously florid lines such as “My thirst for adventure will never be quenched!”


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