(by Dustin Putman
"Puss in Boots" may squeak by on name recognition alone, but the film's actual quality is no better than a direct-to-video-level spin-off of the "Shrek" franchise. Sluggish and uninspired, it is in perilously short supply of creativity, barely bothering to do anything witty with its occasional fairy tale and nursery rhyme references. With a narrow scope, a dull plot, lots of talky filler, and a color scheme that leans toward different shades of brown, the picture is but a faint shadow of Dreamworks' "Shrek" heyday. That neither the green ogre nor any of the series' other characters make cameo appearances or get even passingly mentioned only makes the experience feel more distaff. There is no excuse for this project to have come off as lacking as it does. Article continues below
Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) is a swashbuckling lothario who, in the opening scene, bids farewell to his latest conquest, a furry white tabby who lounges, satisfied, in bed. "What can I say? I was a bad kitty," Puss slyly says. Whether or not these sexual overtones are understood by the children in the audience will be interesting to find out. As for the story proper, Puss first spars, then teams up, with adversary Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) to snatch the magic beans that lumberjack outlaws Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) have in their possession. Reunited with Puss' childhood best friend from back in their orphanage days, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), the trio set off across the dusty landscape hoping to snatch the golden egg from its sky-high goose protector located at the other end of the beanstalk.
"Puss in Boots" does no more than the minimum to get by. Particularly revealing is an early segment where Puss describes his parentless childhood and sad-sack back story in exacting detail (cue the extended flashback), only for the film to eventually return to the present and reveal that Kitty Softpaws has long since fallen asleep next to him. If even your animated characters become so bored that they nod off at said storytelling, it ought to be a resolute, undoubted sign that something is amiss. As directed by Chris Miller (2007's "Shrek the Third") and written by Tom Wheeler, their prequel-cum-branch-off of the "Shrek" features is tepid and unimaginative throughout, desert set-pieces serving as blatant reminders of how much better and more vibrant 2011's "Rango" was in comparison and whimsical storybook interludes (save for the visuals of the castle above the beanstalk) more leaden than enlivening.
The idea of giving a standout side player like Puss in Boots the lead in his own movie isn't beyond the realms of understanding, but the notion that this is the best story and jokes that could be derived from him boggles the mind. Lacking vim as well as vigor, the film goes through the motions with promising baddies, Jack and Jill, who fade into the background by the second half and generally have nothing of interest to do. The other villain, who will go nameless since it's meant to be a surprise, is a rip-off of Andy Dick's Boingo the Bunny from 2005's "Hoodwinked!," making one long for that much, much more clever fractured cinematic fairy tale.
Antonio Banderas is fully on-board and dashing as the intrepid title character of "Puss in Boots," his Spanish-flavored accent an ideal match for a cat version of Zorro (is there any wonder Banderas has starred in that role, too?). In addition, the few observances made about the feline persuasion ring true, particularly their ability to drive a person crazy with their incessant meows and then lure them into submission by looking innocent and adorable in the next breath. The rest of the film is plain, old lazy or, in rare moments, subversively out-there (a payoff involving a literal golden egg comes to mind). Salma Hayek (2010's "Grown Ups") fetchingly voices Kitty Softpaws—her greatest shame is that she's been declawed, hence the name—but is underused as a love interest and partner once Humpty Dumpty takes over as more of the focal point. When "Puss in Boots" is over, having gone nowhere special, aspired only one or two laughs, and touched no hearts, it is difficult not to dwell on what a lost cause the film has been. Where are Shrek, Fiona and—gulp—Donkey when you need them?