Puss in Boots
I'll be honest, I absolutely skipped over Puss in Boots back in the day. By the time this film came out I was already very tired of the ShrekThe tale of an ogre that just wants to be left alone but, instead, becomes the prince to a princess and the hero of a land, all while remaining an ogre through and through. series, having burned out with Shrek the Third. That film was bad enough that I didn't bother with Shrek Forever After, skipped right on past the Shrek Shorts, and didn't even give Puss in Boots. Hadn't the series already said all it needed to say?
At the request of my wife, though, I picked up the whole Shrek collection (mostly because she wanted to watch the Puss in Boots sequel and this was the only way to get me on board). Thus I went through the whole series and got ready to suffer through Puss's solo adventure. A spin-off for a character that worked best when he was utilized in small doses? This seemed like a losing combination... except it absolutely works. Instead of all those Saturday Night Live films that take a one-note character and stretch them well past the breaking point, Puss in Boots gives our titular hero all the room he needed to really expand and show his stuff. Who know the best Shrek sequel would be the on that didn't feature that ogre at all?
Set well before the events of Shrek, Puss in Boots follows our furry bandit (still voiced by Antonio Banderas) on his quest for redemption. When he was young he was adopted into an orphanage by the kindly Imelda (Constance Marie). There he became friends with Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), a weird little egg-man with big dreams. It seems that Alex had heard the stories of magic beans, beans that would grow a giant beanstalk up into the sky where there was a castle filled with amazing treasures. All Humpty needed were those beans so, with Puss's help, the two went about the town, doing petty crimes to get their hands on the beans and see if any of them were magic.
They weren't. However, over time the two little scalawags caused enough trouble that they gained the attention, and the ire, of the Commandante (Guillermo del Toro). He warns the kids, and Imelda, that if they caused any more trouble both boys would end up in the slammer. Humpty hatches another plan, though, but it somehow lead to Puss saving the Commandante and becoming a hero to the town. Suddenly Puss was beloved and Humpty wasn't, so the little egg-man hatched a plan to drag them both in the mud, disgracing their names. Puss fled, Humpty was thrown in jail, and the two hadn't seen each other in years. Now, after all that time, Humpty is back, with his lovely assistant, the feline Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). Those magic beans Humpty wanted are in the possession of Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris). If they can just get their hands on the beans that can get the treasure of the sky and pay back their old town for all their crimes. They just have to pull off the heist.
As you would expect with anything in the Shrek series, the film plays fast and loose with all kind of fairy tale stories. Puss in Boots never showed up in "Jack and the Beanstalk", Jack and Jill were unrelated characters, and Humpty Dumpty was a character from a nursery rhyme. Fidelity to original source material had never been something the Shrek series has cared about, and you don't have to care about that here. But if you're sitting there going, "these are wildly unrelated tales that are joined together here in the most awkward, grafted together way," well, you're not wrong. You have to think there could have been plenty of other characters that could have been used here, but this film just mashes it all together and says, "eff it."
But then, really, it doesn't matter. The main attraction here is Puss in Boots. This is a character, influenced by Banderas's own films Desperado and The Mask of Zorro, who fits much more neatly in a kind of Western adventure. That's exactly what this film delivers, a Western-influenced story that feels like a mashup of Banderas's past works, with just enough humor, and fairy tale references, to work within the loose bounds of the Shrek universe. It works because the only thing it's pay homage to is Banderas himself.
You really get the vibe that Banderas relishes being able to bring all aspects of his past characters to life in Puss. He provides a lot of energy to the character. There's humor, there's charisma, there's swagger, all presented by the voice acting of Banderas. He brought in in his previous performances in the Shrek films, for sure, but it works even better here when the movie can explore all avenues of the character.
By that same token, the film gets a lot of mileage out of building a world around this version of Puss in Boots. Instead of the lush forests and scenic hills of Far Far Away we have dusty landscapes and talk canyons, evocative of the American, and Mexican, Southwest. Stylistically the film feels like a very different adventure, and that allows it to break many of the basic writing rules for the franchise. It has a willing hero, one who dives towards action, not away from it, living the life of a, well, desperado out in the western realm of the Shrek universe.
That also makes the casting of Salma Hayek feel less like a stunt than an homage. She played opposite Banderas in the second and third Desperado films, and their easy chemistry from those movies carries over nicely here. They can convey a lot between their two voices, but you also get the vibe that having Banderas and Hayek together in the film inspired the artists to go all out, crafting to characters that had real chemistry between them. Hayek is great, and the film is even better having her in it.
If there is a weak point its the end of the film. The movie trucks along at a solid clip, conveying the story and putting in plenty of action. But a late film twist is both expected and yet comes out of nowhere. It's expected because clearly the third act needs a real villain and you just know what's going to happen. And yet, for the characters as they were acting up to that point, and then all the events that happen in the third act, it feels really slapped together. It doesn't fit the movie, and even the beats that happen within the third act up to the end don't work as well as they should. You get the vibe the writers didn't quite know how to end the movie so they just threw it all together as quick as they could to get the film out the door.
Still, even a weaker third act can't ruin the fun of this film. It's light, it's hoppy, and it never really stops to drag its feel and make you think. It's pure animation cheese of the best possible sense and a flick well worth watching. If only all the Shrek sequels could have been as good as this spin-off.