Of all the characters that inhabit the ‘Shrek Universe’ it was only Puss in Boots that I could never remember the original fairy story from whence he came. Even though I ‘knew’ the character, the story eluded me, and I was very surprised that even after reading it, I still didn’t know – by that I mean it was not an instantly recognisable tale, but a rather obscure morality fable about the importance of industry and extolling the virtues of dress. Indeed this original tale, which is credited to one Charles Perrault a retired French civil servant at the very close of the seventeenth century, has not been retold or updated to any significant degree whereas the character has appeared outside of the story in other adaptations, hence my familiarity with him, but not the story. In fact, tonight’s feature presentation, in common with many of the adaptations of the character, bares absolutely no relation to the original tale excepting the boots – with much the same being true of his introduction in Shrek 2. Even the flashback to Puss’ youth shows nothing of his original lore – the filmmakers opting to craft their own interpretation for how and why, Puss is who he is. For Puss in Boots is a prequel to his appearance in Shrek, set in the same Universe, sure, but set apart from it by more than a combination of story and character, about which I’ll go into later. For now, let us look at the feature presentation: Puss in Boots 3D.
Puss in Boots is a young, plump, energetic and feisty outlaw, quick with a sword and quicker with his boots, built on a fiery reputation of milk, women and speed. His latest plan is to steal the fabled magic beans from Jack and Jill, but he is thwarted in his attempt by a ‘cat’ burglar named Kitty Softpaws, who is even more skilled in the art of thievery and when the pair scrap for the beans both come away empty handed (or is that pawed). Incensed by someone attempting to cash in on his plan, Puss follows the masked cat back to a dance hall where the pair engage in a ‘dance off’ to see who is worthy of the prize to steal the beans. This opening achieves two things: it places the film in the ‘Shrek Universe’ and simultaneously sets itself apart as a film in its own right. The first point is easy, the characters, their design, the ‘fairy story’ world they inhabit is easy to emulate, indeed, the whole film has that ‘Shrek’ look to it; this is a good thing it leads to a familiarity with the world. Conversely the story telling narrative is very different, whilst we recognise the characters they behave very differently to what we initially expect; Puss, himself, is a darker presence – his threatening demeanour in the saloon is something we have not seen before, in fact the whole saloon scene is tinged with a menace beyond that of what we’ve come to expect. This too is a good thing; it is separating the film from what we expect and thus allowing it to breathe in its own space.
Puss is voiced, once again, by Antonio Banderas who gives a far more youthful edge to the dialogue since Puss is much younger then we’ve seen him before. This works well with the new design; he is smaller, somewhat plumper and yet to fully develop that quick wit and smouldering charisma he will become famous for. The film, in one of the many flashbacks, explores where the character actually came from and how he develops into the outlaw of this film and touches upon how he then becomes the character we will see in Shrek 2. The back-story written for him actually works for the character and is one of the few elements that is not ham-fisted in the narrative. The introduction of Kitty Softpaws is seamless; she is a natural feisty element with her own, not unexpectedly tragic, back-story; the only problem is that you know exactly where her character is heading within the first few minutes of her being on screen – a situation that the whole film suffers from. Kitty is voiced by the rather uninspired choice of Salma Hayek, nothing against the actress who does an excellent job conveying her feelings through the pixels, and I will admit that the pair have a terrific on screen chemistry that only comes from working well together in many previous projects, it’s just that it’s so obvious; if the makers wanted to truly be original why not go with a different actress, even an unknown?
Turns out that Kitty is in cahoots with Humpty Alexander Dumpty, one time blood brother and fellow orphan with Puss; but an unhealable rift has seen them go their separate ways and for many years they denied each other’s existence. Only Humpty now needs Puss’ help to steal the beans; for he now knows where they are and crucially where to bury them so that the beanstalk will grow enabling them to steal the golden goose. And pretty much that is the plot of the film right there. And I bet you can guess exactly where the plot will go from my simple summation as well? It is this familiarity with the plot contrivances and devices that makes Puss in Boots so frustrating to watch; for you see there is a good film somewhere in all the pop culture references and obvious twists trying to get out. It is as if the makers thought of an idea and filmed it rather than spend the time re-writing and honing the script to become the best it can be – you know the kind of thing Pixar routinely does and hence their 99% hit rate record (Cars 2 is still a fly in the ointment). Amazingly 2012 was a very poor outing for top quality CG animated films, Pixar didn’t have a film even nominated in the Academy Awards, and Puss in Boots, itself, was nominated, that gives you an idea of the overall quality ... but I digress. The narrative is extremely linear in nature and even though there are a few twists put in to keep you guessing, anyone with an ounce of savvy with see them coming a mile away; it means that the film trundles along trying its best to be entertaining but it has no heart or soul to keep you gripped. Even the comedy, which is such a prevailing aspect of the Shrek Universe, fails to really engage. I have no doubt, however, that those of a younger disposition, will find more enjoyment in the film that an old hack like me. The characters are colourful, the back-stories make sense within this film (even if there are too many of them), and there is a small amount of justice felt when all is said and done – all things that a child will take on board and be broadly entertained by. But it is seriously lacking in adult engagement – Shrek hit this perfectly, and while subsequent Shrek films failed to live up to that high standard, unfortunately Puss fails to even come close. In fact if it wasn’t for the spectacular 3D there would be little to keep me watching at all. Even at ninety minutes it seems to drag because it feels like it is full of padding.
So there, for me, is little to recommend in the first spin off from the Shrek Universe and whilst the younger viewers might get some entertainment value due to the recognisable characters and comedy lite, there is very little for an adult to enjoy; and in the cut throat CG animation market that simply isn’t good enough.
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