The setting: a tavern in a small pueblo celebrating the Festival del Fuego y el Pollo (don’t ask). Our hero: a flamboyant rogue wanted for robbery, seeking information for a possible local score.
“The Church of St. Michael has just put up a golden statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” volunteers the tremulous tavern keeper.
Our hero shakes his head firmly: “I do not steal from churches.”
“The orphanage has just received a donation of silver candlesticks,” a patron offers.
“I do not steal from orphans.”
If this is the Shrekverse, it’s suddenly become a more complicated place than four Shrek films led us to believe.
When the original Shrek ended with a climactic church wedding, it was one of those stereotyped scenes with the villain forcing the heroine to marry him and the hero arriving at the last minute — smashing through a stained-glass window riding a dragon, no less. So there could be a generic church, if the plot needed it, but it’s hard to imagine reverence or respect for the Church as a defining or redeeming trait. Shrek was too detached, too ironic, too postmodern a character for bourgeois piety — he was an ogre, after all.
And I’m not sure that St. Michael or the Virgin of Guadalupe could exist in the Shrekverse if that whole world weren’t implicit in Antonio Banderas’ very accent.
The Shrek films were always tied to the British panto tradition of musical comedy theater, with its fractured fairy-tale milieu, double-entendres, cross-dressing and so forth. Perhaps that’s why the films always felt sort of cramped and paltry to me — “as if the characters themselves didn’t believe the world extended beyond the edges of the screen, or the opening and closing credits,” I once wrote. Somehow they feel like watching a dozen or so actors on a stage with a painted backdrop and flat wooden cutouts of trees and such.
Banderas’ swashbuckling Puss in Boots first appeared in Shrek 2, quickly establishing himself as one of the most popular supporting characters in the franchise. Now, in a starring role in this spin-off, Puss spins the story in a direction strikingly different from the Shrek films.
It’s still a world inhabited by refugees from the Grimm Brothers and Mother Goose: Jack and Jill, Jack and the Beanstalk, Humpty Dumpty and so forth. But the frontiers of the Shrekverse now extend to the worlds of spaghetti westerns and Zorro-esque swashbucklers. Puss’ story is one of honor and shame, filial piety and family ties, corruption and redemption.
Banderas’ persona also carries a strong flavor of Don Juan machismo and innuendo. Among his legendary aliases (including Diablo Gato and even Chupacabra) Puss cites his reputation as “the Furry Lover” and “Frisky Two-Times,” and when we first meet him sneaking out of a lockup, he bids farewell to a fluffy white kitty on a pillow, murmuring, “I shall never forget you.” His love interest goes by the distinctly Bond-Girl handle Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), and there’s a lot of flirtatious banter between them. (On another note, a one-liner about Puss having catnip “for my glaucoma” pushes an envelope that didn’t need pushing.)
Wrongly implicated in a crime he didn’t commit, Puss is determined to clear his name, repay a debt of honor and vindicate himself in the eyes of his surrogate mama, Imelda (Constance Marie), whose sorrow at her adopted son’s disgrace pains him more than any adversary. Imelda’s exhortations — “You are better than this” — stick with him, and while he stoops to stealing, he only robs people who deserve it: scary people like Jack and Jill, a redneck-gothic husband-and-wife pair of hulking brutes who guard a trove of magic beans with extraordinary diligence.
Magic beans? Is the Jack who broke his crown the same as the one who traded his cow? If anyone would know, it’s Puss’ foster brother, the ovoid Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), who has nurtured a lifelong obsession with magic beans, the giant’s castle in the clouds and the legendary goose that lays golden eggs.
Garrulous and, well, brittle, Humpty is a troubled kid who grows up to be a — well, eggs don’t really grow up, do they? This is a very strange universe. It reminds me a little of one of the summer’s oddest films, the animated Western(ish) Rango, except that in Rango there was absolutely nothing to connect with emotionally, and the story, past the surface weirdness, followed a very straightforward formula. Puss in Boots is formulaic too, but it’s a hodgepodge of all different formulas, and it’s surprising how emotionally engaging it sometimes is.
At times, the weirdness gets to be a bit much. When we meet the goose that lays the golden eggs, it’s actually a downy gosling, if a giant one — and later on we meet its doting mother, who looks like a proper giant goose. Even my 8-year-old daughter thought it was weird that a baby goose is laying eggs while still being cared for by its mother — and that a mother in a species that produces so many eggs has only one baby. Call me crazy, but even in an animated universe, I prefer some semblance of respect for the facts of life. (See Barnyard and Bee Movie: Let’s not teach children that there are male cows with udders or that pollen is magic plant food.)
Visually, Puss in Boots is nothing short of dazzling. The DreamWorks’ animators are at the top of their game; Puss’ world is rich, vast and atmospheric, with rollicking action sequences and genuine spectacle. It looks fabulous in 3-D and makes better use of the format than Pixar’s Cars 2, which also put a popular supporting character — Mater — in a starring role. Unlike Mater, Puss is ready for his close-up.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Intense animated action and menace, including a character coming to a possibly disturbing end; some innuendo and rude humor. Might be a bit much for younger kids.