In Home Viewings: "Puss in Boots"

As a prequel to the Shrek series, Puss in Boots serves to tell the origin story of the titular character’s (Antonio Banderas) rise to prominence. A slick thief with a haunted past, Puss takes on a dangerous job in which he attempts to steal the fabled magic beans from a pair of hardened criminals known as Jack and Jill (fortunately not Adam Sandler in drag). His plan goes awry, however, when he comes into contact with another thief, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). Softpaws engages Puss in a (dance) battle and eventually brings him to meet Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), an old friend-turned-enemy. But Humpty has a plan to right an old wrong and convinces Puss to join him in the undertaking of a dangerous but lucrative adventure.

I have to hand it Dreamworks animation, they know how to make a solid children’s movie that adults can sit through comfortably. They’ve developed a formula that goes something like this: Likeable Characters + Outstanding Visuals + Recognizable Voice Talent + Borderline-Illicit Jokes That Kids Won’t Get - Any Semblance of Heart and Emotion = A 3-Star Film That Kids Will Flock To. Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar and the rest all work within this equation and Puss in Boots is no exception.

Let’s work our way through that formula as it applies to this film. The characters at play within Puss in Boots are good-enough, though none of them quite measure up to the best of the Dreamworks universe. Puss is probably better served as an ancillary role but he is not overmatched with carrying his own film and his surrounding characters are all enjoyable if underwhelming. Puss looks predictably beautiful with rich scene structure and exquisite character details. The soul of Dreamworks animation is in their visuals and this film is nothing if not gorgeously animated. Another staple of the Dreamworks feature is the use of big name actors to voice the characters as opposed to the Pixar method which often employs lesser-known performers. The risk of using well-known voices is that it can cause the audience to see the characters not as themselves but as the actor providing the voice. Here, though, I think Banderas and especially Galifianakis do a good job of putting their respective characters above themselves, not always an easy task. The jokes, meanwhile, come early and often and fall right in line with the line of humor we were treated to in the Shrekfilms. Dreamworks has mastered the art of cramming adult-oriented jokes into their films without ever allowing young minds to become the wiser and that is, of course, a large part of their success. Puss manages to push the envelope in sly ways and that provides a handful of big laughs.

The major issue with Puss is the same one I have with just about every Dreamworks feature: there’s almost nothing in the way of emotional connection. Whereas Pixar always strives to create organic connection between the characters and the audience, Dreamworks doesn’t always seem interested in taking their films beyond above-average children’s fare. I feel like steps have been taken to correct this problem in recent years. Kung Fu Panda comes closer to striking an emotional note from time to time and How to Train Your Dragon is absolutely up to the Pixar standard in every way. But Puss in Boots is decisively shallow, never bothering to even scratch the surface in terms of resonating beyond a mildly entertaining level. There’s simply no depth whatsoever and while that does indeed fit into the Dreamworks formula, at some point you have to ask yourself if the studio is progressing or simply painting by numbers.