Ever since Antonio Banderas’s Puss took off his hat and stared at us with those dilated pupils in Shrek 2, it was all but inevitable that there would be a spin-off. So it has come to pass with Puss in Boots, a surprisingly simple, straightforward animation that dials back on the excessive pop culture references of the last couple of Shrek sequels, and in many ways hearkens back to the unpretentious, uncluttered story-telling of the green ogre’s first outing. Placing Puss in a typically mild post-modern version of Jack and the Beanstalk (the magic beans now belong to Jack and Jill, having been taken from Andy ‘Jack’ Beanstalk in jail), the film sees the feline hero getting in various spots of bother in order to find the golden goose with the help of Humpty Dumpty, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, to repay an old debt from childhood. Puss in Boots also sees Banderas reuniting with Salma Hayek, perfectly cast but underused as Puss’s love interest (completing the Latin triumvirate is Guillermo del Toro, voicing a couple of minor characters).
Although Puss in Boots is amusing in places and maintains a brisk pace throughout, it doesn’t quite have the warm drollery of Shrek, and badly lacks a reliable comic relief a la Eddie Murphy’s Donkey. Galifianakis was clearly intended for that role, but he’s given drab lines to work with, and Humpty Dumpty suffers from unappealing design and unsympathetic character arc. Curiously, he is just about the only other fairy tale character spliced into the story, in stark contrast to the Shrek movies where no nursery rhyme and fable were safe from creative pilfering. There’s no one to pick up the slack once the initial fun of Puss’s introduction wears off and the movie starts to sag under the lack of quality jokes and set-pieces, making you wonder whether the filmmakers perhaps went a little too far in paring down the old formula. It’s a good thing, then, that Puss is still such a delightful creation: an endearing variant of Banderas’s Zorro persona mixed with dollops of the dippy ‘cheezburger’ meme cat, he is impossible to dislike, and will no doubt delight cat lovers with some acutely observed and animated feline behaviour.
With half a billion dollars in the bank a sequel should be a safe bet, and Puss in Boots doesn’t feel like it has really maxed out the potential of such a lovable lead. A follow-up isn’t a bad idea, then, provided that they beef up on the humour – because while the movie is generally diverting, it lacks the kind of embracing fun that made Shrek so engaging. A solid framework is there, so here’s hoping Dreamworks gives the next film a bit more wit to go along with Puss’s charm.