DreamWorks phenomenally popular Shrek franchise ranks as the highest grossing animated film series of all time, taking in over $3 billion dollars collectively at the global box office. With the fourth installment Shrek Forever After declared to be the final chapter, one would expect that to be the end of that chapter. Of course, similar declarations didn’t stop Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Final Destination or Star Trek: The Final Frontier (or the entire Final Fantasy series for that matter), and nobody said anything about spin-offs or prequels. Not willing to walk away from the giant green cash cow of an ogre, DreamWorks have turned to one of the most popular supporting characters from that series, hoping to tap into that lucrative cat coin.
In the days before Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas, The Skin I Live In) met Shrek and Donkey, he roamed the land as an outlaw, accused of a crime he didn’t commit. After learning that Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris) have the magic beans he needs to get to the giant’s treasure, he makes a move to steal them, but is interrupted by a masked rival that he discovers to be Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, Grown Ups). Teaming up with old friend, Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis, The Hangover Part II), who he had a falling out with years before, the race is on to find the goose who lays the golden eggs and restore the good name of Puss in Boots. This is the authorised biopic of Mr. Puss in Boots.
First introduced in Shrek 2, the now iconic character of Puss in Boots immediately established himself as a distinctive entity that had a wider appeal than just crazy Internet cat people. Appearing in both Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After, albeit as a pampered fat-cat in the latter, there is a temptation to feel as though we have seen all of this before. After all, as much fun as the alternate reality of Shrek Forever After was, the anachronistic fairytale humour had been well and truly played out in the 9 years that separated the first and last chapter of that film series. As such, Puss in Boots works with a different set of influences. Despite being set in the same universe as Shrek, during an indeterminate time before Shrek 2, this film is an action-Western. If Shrek is the northern European fairytales, then this one is from the south, filtered by way of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Even this has been seen before in Rango, but Puss in Boots will undoubtedly offer a much broader appeal.
There are two central factors contributing to the ongoing appeal of the character of Puss. Undoubtedly, one of these is the brilliant voice work from Antonio Banderas, who continues to bring to the table the same gravitas that he would with anything he’s done for Pedro Almodóvar. The other, of course, is the universal cuteness of the fuzzy creatures on screen. The best animated animals act like humans, only to behave like animals (and cartoons) when you least expect it. Puss lapping at a shot of milk or chasing after a spot of light are the kinds of squee-inducing moments that will have cat lovers and people with heartbeats alike giggling with delight.
Puss in Boots makes an all-out assault on the cat lovers on one hand, using all the sequences with Puss as a kitten to engender a high degree of “awwwing” from on average audience. Occasionally, it will flip this around and make jokes about “crazy cat people”. Indeed, there is much more of an adult sensibility to Puss in Boots than the Shrek films. It opens with Puss leaving sleeping cat by a fireplace while getting dressed, and contains frequent references to recreational catnip usage. Make no mistake: this is no Fritz the Cat, but it balances adult and kids humour in a way that was missing from other DreamWorks productions.
The animation itself is gorgeous. With every film, DreamWorks improves some quality or presents us with one previously unseen in their films. The fur, for example, is photo-realistic and looks good enough to pat, although the purring will largely be on our side of the screen. There’s a dance sequence that is as fluid as it is hilarious, and an extended sequence in the clouds is breathtaking. The character design is also terrific, picking up where Shrek left off and making a more sophisticated and beautifully ugly (or hideously beautiful if you prefer) set of misfits, particular in the case of Jack and Jill. Indeed, they look straight out of an old Looney Tunes cartoon or anything Disney has done with a bayou.
Like the Shrek series, Puss in Boots is a highly aware and consciously comedic look at the storybook world. It taps into a vein of the adult brain that can relish in the cleverness of it all, while the other elements work together so that the child (or the child inside us, a disturbing concept when you think about it) can enjoy the sheer joy of it all. In a year where Pixar has let us down with the mediocre Cars 2, Puss in Boots is the franchise that has picked up their own ball and run with it. A strong contender for the best animated feature about a cat for the year. Just as the “Oooh” cat.
Puss in Boots is released in Australia on 8 December 2011 from Paramount.
Check out our interview with director Chris Miller!