The second animated film with this title I’ve reviewed, and rather different from the lovely classic Toei film with Miyazaki on key animation, though that one is more properly called Nagagutsu-o Haita Neko. This one, of course, is not a take on the original Perrault tale but a spin-off of Dreamworks’ successful Shrek franchise. While I was quite happy to see Shrek come to a moderately dignified end, this spin-off never struck me as a bad idea – Puss was a likeable and funny character, less annoying than Shrek or Donkey, and just peripheral enough to make his own side-story seem like something wholly new.
And, honestly, this turned out to be better than any of the Shrek films. It’s far less irreverent, less knowing and less self-consciously zany, which actually makes it far more likeable. Rather than going for subversion by putting the ugly ogre centre-stage, now they have the cat, and what is lost in everyman qualities is more than made up for by cuteness.
Conceived as a prequel so that it could be developed in tandem with Shrek films without contradicting any continuity, it is refreshingly free of cast members from the original franchise. Indeed, supposedly it was originally to be direct-to-video, and I’m glad it not only got upgraded to theatrical feature but was converted to 3D – some of the best I’ve seen during the whole fad. It played things safe plot-wise, but the little details were often inspired and the humour was superb. It was also refreshing that the pop culture references were mostly limited to general pastiches of westerns and one reference to Fight Club – too many of those outstay their welcome. Even hints at the controversy around declawing (barely heard of in this country) seemed a bit heavy-handed!
Back before he met Shrek and Donkey in Shrek 2, Puss in Boots was a wanted cat. In a seedy saloon he learns that the burly outlaws Jack and Jill have come into possession of three magic beans. That strikes a chord with Puss, and he resolves to steal them. Unfortunately, the attempt is foiled because another feline has eyes on the prize – notorious cat burglar Kitty Softpaws. After a brilliantly funny confrontation, it turns out that Kitty is in league with Humpty Dumpty, a figure from Puss’s past and linked to some painful memories. Humpty grew up with Puss, until the two of them grew apart because Humpty was too drawn to a life of crime – climaxing in a bank heist that went wrong and disgrace for them both. Eventually, Puss is convinced, the new team manages to steal the beans from the grotesque redneck-Bavarian hybrids Jack and Jill, go up the beanstalk and bring back the gosling that lays the golden eggs. But all is not as it seems, and at the very least getting the gosling down from the giant’s castle doesn’t mean you’re home safe.
It’s a neat and well worked-out plot, helped by a strong backstory, and if the twist makes you doubt it could quite work when at so many points the quest could have failed and everybody could have ended up dead, you allow it because it’s far from the silliest thing that happens. But what really makes the film work is the little touches and the clever witty jokes. Most of the humour is very much character-based, and there’s much to be drawn from the fact that two main characters are cats – adorable, proud and prone to chase after spots of light – and one is an egg. Add to that jokes based on Spanish and Mexican culture, inherently silly birds and some simple classic comedy of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or trying to show off and it going wrong, and you get by far the funniest of the series, especially because it mostly doesn’t seem to be trying too hard – and, crucially, has warmth, with much of the comedy about Latin culture more affectionate homage than caricature. They even get Guillermo del Toro, executive producer, to voice the comandate.
Funny, clever, cute and giving the impression that all involved genuinely likes the film they’re making, it is by far the best thing to come out of the Shrek franchise and my second-favourite Dreamworks film, after How to Train your Dragon.