Restoring Nine Lives to the Dying Shrek
A spinoff tale from the life-support-abusing Shrek franchise, Puss in Boots is far more inspired than both of the green ogre’s past two miserable outings. The plot’s paper thin, sure, but director Chris Miller and the wizards at Dreamworks Animation infuse enough nuanced visuals and witty dialogue to keep adults interested in their unabashedly ostentatious hero Puss (a flamboyant Antonio Banderas).
The titular cat sets off with partners Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) to climb the magic beanstalk and recover a gold egg-laying goose, hoping to restore their town’s wealth years after they had robbed it. The explosive action scenes are well done but basically follow in the vain of the stereotypical Western adventure—The Mask of Zorro and Tall Tale are main influences. However, the filmmakers keep things fresh with self-reflective commentary on conventions. For instance, they poke fun at the contrived flashbacks that often occur when the true identity of a character is revealed. These sequences can demand its audience to suspend disbelief over plot holes, or can leave them feeling betrayed, since the flashback will rewrite what they have already seen. In Mission Impossible, the rewriting of history occurs when Ethan (Tom Cruise) pieces together the puzzle of the night his team was massacred, and we are shown the same scene at different angles, discovering that familiar faces were always nearby.
Puss in Boots mocks the concept in a somewhat distracting narrative suspension. When the traitorous Humpty says, “You never knew, Puss, but I was always there,” we expect a contrived flashback of him orchestrating his plan, but instead are shown several silly images of the egg standing around familiar locales, an ironically menacing look in his eyes in spite of his nonthreatening appearance.
That’s right, I’m looking at you, audience, who are powerless to save your hero as I pelt his fur with bird feed.
Puss in Boots is nuanced with other meta-film, like a split-screen style that involves a camera with its own self-mocking personality.
Here, the camera slows time down time at a critical moment for the cats, parodying their devastation over spilled milk.
When a split-screen shot is cued, we instinctively want to know what lies in the black.
The self-aware camera plays on our anticipation and trolls us with a pointless (and humorous) image of a squawking crow. Puss gets angry at the crow for ruining the dramatic aftermath of his smug one-liner, so he quickly shoos it out of the frame, unwilling to share the shot.
The characters are flat as one would expect in a satire, but like Shrek, where contemporary culture is seamlessly blended with a fairy tale setting, Puss in Boots utilizes such references to explore surprisingly complex identity crises. “Our biological clocks are tickin,” Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) tells Jill (Amy Sedaris) as they voice their fatalistic anxieties of never having children. Kitty becomes the most (and only, really) intriguing character when she tells Puss her tale of woe. Her master removed her claws, and she is forced to live a life of inadequacy. This may be the first film to psychoanalyze the mutilated house cat—a common victim frequently defended by animal rights activists who, along with the film, condemn owners who remove their cats’ claws rather than shaving them.
Unfortunately, the characterization falters during a forced climax. The writers didn’t want Puss redeemed until the end, perhaps hoping to achieve the emotional resonance of Toy Story, where Woody must save his friends to be re-accepted by them. Therefore, they construct a contrived scenario where Humpty predictably betrays his only friend. The egg is reduced to sadistic villainy—an incongruous development that—when considering his self-sacrificial nature revealed when he draws the bullies’ ridicule away from Puss—seems entirely nonsensical given that Humpty has nothing to gain by betraying his partner.
This emphasis on caricature over character is most damaging when he jilts Puss, as the script reduces him to an amoral criminal mastermind who has somehow abandoned all the kindred humanity that he evinced during their prior near-death adventures.
So apparently Humpty is in leagues with outlaws Jack and Jill. This makes no sense, since he spent a third of the movie trying to rob the siblings of the magic beans.
I don’t mean to bitch too much about unrealistic character development—after all, Puss essentially is a caricature who parodies romanticized heroes like Zoro (Similar to Rango’s commentary on the Western genre)—but Puss in Boots’ final act is manipulative, sentimental bait for children. The writers were without a central villain (requisite for children’s tales), so they forced the hapless egg to assume the role. What’s more emotionally powerful than seeing the hero conquer the villain? The villain’s redemption, of course! What pulls harder at our heartstrings than a conflicted, troubled bad guy’s conversion to the light side and his subsequent sacrificial death?
In Return of the Jedi’s blu-ray release, George-king-of-post-mutilation-Lucas was clever enough to accentuate this iconic scene’s emotional power with an emphatic (read: laughable) “NOOOOOOOOOOO.” You know, in case the kiddies weren’t sure which decision Darth Vader was making.
Boromir’s (Sean Bean) an asshole throughout all of The Fellowship of the Ring, and yet who didn’t cry for him? Only an unsentimental stone heart can resist the manipulative power of a bad guy’s redemption through Christ-like sacrifice (and with Howard Shore’s score).
This climactic scene’s level of power relies on the redeemed villain’s badassery. Who’d give a s*** about Boromir if he wasn’t a Uruk–hai-massacring machine? So Humpty’s limelight is dampened by his impotence and muted by irrational decisiveness—why is he so quick to kill himself for the village that he just displayed rooted hatred for five minutes earlier? Unfortunately, the egg’s redemption will only elicit sympathy from the kids.
Puss in Boots doesn’t strive to achieve much. It’s lighthearted fair for casual viewing and thankfully attracts kids as well as cinephiles who can appreciate its genre deconstruction as well as its fluid artistry. An incalculable amount of time is devoted when inventing a computer generated fantasy world, and the artists’ love is evident throughout the brilliant, lush locales of this rousing adventure. Next time Dreamworks wants to send Shrek on an adventure, I hope they choose his cat instead.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars