It was really just a matter of time until the swashbuckling kitty introduced into the green ogre Shrek's upside-down fairytale universe in 2004's Shrek 2 would get his own moment in the headlights. Not surprisingly, this origin story of the latin lover swordscat is a notch above the three Shrek sequels, Dreamworks having carefully laid down the groundwork for a new franchise that would take up from the now defunct series. Part of its success, of course, lies in the sheer novelty effect, and the sense that the possibilities available to the heroic feline, hardly exploited during his supporting turns, are finally getting centre stage. Jeffrey Katzenberg's studio doesn't disappoint in that regard, much helped by a script that follows the company's recent move (seen also, for instance, in Kung Fu Panda 2) away from sitcom gag reels and into a proper narrative scaffolding.
In this case, that translates into half origin story for Puss's heroism and outlaw status, half redemption tale (as he is revealed to be looking to make amends for a sorry episode from his past), but also into a smart, knowing take on classic Hollywood adventure cinema. First in the typecasting (Puss as the resourceful, gallant hero; shifty egg Humpty Dumpty as the helper with an agenda of his own; slinky Kitty Softpaws as the rebellious, and not entirely trustworthy, love interest); then in the general feel of backlot exoticism so well used by the stock studio adventures of the 1930s and 1940s (this fairytale Spain is closer to Mexico, in fact). Of course, part of the fun also lies in the clever voice casting, with Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek playing off each other beautifully as Puss and Kitty - putting one in mind of Mr. Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones' back-and-forth in Martin Campbell's The Mask of Zorro (itself an updated take on classic adventure films).
Puss in Boots is certainly not the best Dreamworks feature in the the studios' 15-year output - that remains the original Shrek by a long mile - but its clever visuals (with a word for the excellent 3D work, less gimmicky and more integrated), its attention to plot and character and its generally cheerful mood go a long way towards making it one of their best.
Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris.
Director, Chris Miller; screenplay, Tom Wheeler, from a story by Brian Lynch, Will Davies and Mr. Wheeler; music, Henry Jackman; production designer, Guillaume Aretos; costume designer, Isis Mussenden; film editor, Eric Dapkewicz; visual effects supervisor, Ken Bielenberg; producers, Joe M. Aguilar, Latifa Ouaou (Dreamworks Animation), USA, 2011, 90 minutes. (US distribution and world sales, Paramount Pictures.)
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9, Lisbon, November 25th 2011.