Lifted from the insanely successful “Shrek” franchise, “Puss In Boots” puts one of the most beloved animated supporting characters of recent memory front and center on the big screen. Memorably debuting in “Shrek 2”, with his snarky wit, swashbuckler’s persona, and those eyes…Puss In Boots stole the show, voiced with priceless energy and enthusiasm by Antonio Banderas. Previously experienced in small doses, can Puss In Boots carry a full-length feature on his tiny little shoulders? Well, yes and no.
Fashioned as a prequel and filling in the backstory of Puss’ childhood, we learn that Puss was raised in an orphanage and grew up as best friends with a misfit anthropomorphic egg named Humpty Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). Quickly becoming close like brothers, Humpty Dumpty and Puss dream of one day stealing magic beans, creating and climbing the fantastical beanstalk which stretches high and into the clouds, and then stealing the eggs laid by the Golden Goose. With those gold eggs on hand, Puss and Humpty will simply live happily ever after.
But oh those best laid plans. More inclined to travel the straight and narrow, Puss matures, while Humpty clings to the fantasy and idea of seeing his plan come to fruition. This eventually causes a rift between the best friends and they travel separate paths. As time goes on, those paths reconvene with Puss embodying the role of a swashbuckling lothario and Humpty mired in the angst and malaise of his petty crimes, all geared towards an attempt at acquiring wealth and power.
When Puss and Humpty meet up again, Mr. Dumpty has grown restless in his failed endeavors and employs a masked assistant, who strikes up the interest of Puss almost immediately. Skilled in fighting, dancing, and doing just about everything else better than Puss, our feline protagonist sees his animal attraction rewarded when the mysterious masked animal is revealed to be the beautiful Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). Not only must Puss work hard to keep Humpty in check, but Kitty Softpaws strikes Puss’ fancy and their love/hate relationship might just see their hate dissolving away, if Puss has anything to do about it.
It’s hard to tear apart a film like “Puss In Boots”, which has an irresistible leading character and is so painstakingly well made on a visual level. The animation is amongst the finest I have seen on screen this year and some of the action sequences, and especially the oneupsmanship which Puss and Kitty engage in early on, are a great deal of fun. Zach Galifianakis is terrific in voicing Humpty and strikes a clever chord of anxiousness and devilish intent. His loose and flexible morality is well voiced with Galifianakis’ use of affect and inflection.
Problematic to the overall viewing experience is the realization that there is really not a whole lot to “Puss In Boots”. As a result, the film bogs down into a rather dull and lackluster story of adventure and revenge and crime and never forgetting to be true to yourself and staying kind to others. The message is indeed a sound one, but getting there is a slog. Much of the middle portions of “Puss In Boots” focuses on Humpty trying to convince Puss that their beanstalk/Goose Who Lays The Golden Egg plans are still theirs for the taking. To the film’s detriment, director Chris Miller can never make that journey all that interesting. In long stretches, I simply found myself bored and disconnected from the energy on screen. Miller, who also directed the widely panned “Shrek The Third”, seems to again spin his wheels unnecessarily, burning off a lot of wasted potential and frivolity that is set up so well in the opening minutes of the film.
That the film loses its way is a major disappointment because Antonio Banderas, Galifianakis, and Salma Hayek are pretty terrific when it comes to imbibing these characters with their voices. In addition to the effective work of Zack Galifianakis, Banderas and Hayek play well off of one another, undoubtedly channeling an inherent chemistry which comes from working together so often through the years. Also of note, the loathsome characters Jack and Jill, who get drawn into the Beanstalk subplot, are underused here but voiced engagingly by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris.
I’m not entirely sure where “Puss In Boots” misses the mark. Chris Miller directs the story more like a feature film and less like a kids story, which adds to an impressive visual aesthetic. The voice work is sound, the animation crisp, and even some of the 3D is impressive, with long, rolling shots of terrain and a sequence occurring up in the clouds that is quite well conceived and executed. But Miller’s focus seems to have ignored the fact that the story and screenplay, which underwent a great deal of tweaks, rewrites, and reinventions over the course of the decade or so it took to bring “Puss In Boots” to the big screen, is largely forgettable.
Thankfully, “Puss In Boots” does not bombard viewers with pop culture references and zany one-liners and visual puns, but it lacks a memorable hook and departs from your mind quite abruptly. Maddeningly, all the elements are in place for “Puss In Boots” to deliver upon its heightened expectations. That it bookends its memorable qualities with a meandering and listless adventure yarn for much of the film’s 90 minutes is enough to make you want to circle around a few times, curl up in a ball, and take a catnap for an hour or so. Come to think of it, I’m yawning right now.