Monday, October 31, 2011
Sequels and spin-offs are the dual gift-and-curse of the fact that the film industry is a business. If it can make just enough money to justify its existence, Hollywood will damn near make a sequel or a spin-off out of just about anything - and they have no shame when it comes to dead horses and how mercilessly they're beaten....lest we forget Land Before Time 13.
So when Dreamworks announced that they'd be producing a spin-off of the also-sequel-laden Shrek franchise focused on the character of Puss In Boots, I was neither surprised nor impressed. I figured it would probably not do very well at the box office and would be a critical flop. Then the reviews started coming in, and it seemed that the general consensus was that Puss in Boots far exceeded everyone's expectations. So, I decided to play the role of "white-guy-in-slasher-flick" and grabbed my proverbial flashlight to go investigate.
The movie plays out like something of an origin story for the character, taking place before the events of the Shrek movies. Orphaned from an early age, Puss (Antonio Banderas) is taken in by a kindly woman who ran in orphanage in San Ricardo. There, he befriends Humpty Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) and the two become partners in crime. Puss soon grows out of his penchant for petty thievery, and instead tries to devote his life to a more respectable path. But Humpty isn't so easily swayed and through some underhanded scheming, frames Puss for a crime he didn't commit. Branded an outlaw, Puss goes from tavern to tavern...just searching for his next shot of leche. But upon meeting the beautiful thief Kitty Soft-Paws (Salma Hayek) and learning that she is in cahoots with Humpty, the trio set off to retrieve the fabled magic beans from Jack and Jill (Billy-Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris).
To their credit, the folks at Dreamworks know how to cast voice-actors. Antonio Banderas reprises his roll as Puss flawlessly, and the joy he brings to the job is palpable. It's little secret that Puss is a take-off of Banderas' other famous silver-screen persona: Zorro. So it's always a joy to see the ways in which he and the filmmakers send up the very persona that made him famous in the first place. Salma Hayek appears as the femme-fatale/love interest, and cliched though it might be (it's not like the two co-starred in Desperado or anything) it's a dynamic that works, so "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Galifianakis is another pitch-perfect voice, and his characterization of Humpty as a schemer, if still a vaguely tragic hero, is a real delight.
It's no secret that Dreamworks Animation Studio isn't on par with Pixar (frankly, no one is) but to their credit, their animation style has definitely come into its own. In addition, their writing certainly seems to have recovered. And I say "recovered" because, let's face it, with Shrek 4Ever After they were using the old "What if none of this had even happened?" a la It's a Wonderful Life. And any book or seminar on screenwriting will tell you that trope is one of the last things to be scraped from the bottom of the barrel. So it was surprisingly refreshing to see that Puss in Boots, its status as spin-off notwithstanding, actually explored some new narrative territory. There's a near half-hour flashback in the first 20 minutes of the movie and it manages somehow to not stop the narrative momentum of the film. And they thankfully resisted the urge to work in other characters from the Shrek franchise - opting instead to present us with a whole new array of faces, besides Puss of course.
Puss in Boots occasionally has to go for gimmicks and gags to grab another laugh or two. I love the whole "chipmunk voice" thing, but when it shows up in this movie (the characters are in the clouds, where the air is thinner) it definitely feels like the audience being tossed a bone. Especially considering their voices change back immediately once they enter the castle from the Jack and the Beanstalk legend. Kitty asks why they're voices are back to normal. Humpty explains the castle air is pressurized. Ok, that technically closes any loopholes. But the exchange feels forced, the chipmunk voices themselves even more so.
The movie is achingly predictable. Yes, it's a kids movie. But the Shrek films - at least the first two - were all about shaking up old fairy tale cliches. As a result, there was something fresh and unexpected about them. Maybe my expectations were too high, but Puss in Boots seems to sail straightforward in one direction the whole time. It works just fine as a kids movie, but again some of the fun of the Shrek films is that there was material for young and old audiences both to enjoy.
The other thing that seems to be missing from this outing is the overall lack of pop culture references. That was where a good deal of the humor and charm stemmed from in the original Shrek movies. Puss in Boots, being a send up of the whole Zorro franchise, acts like one big pop culture reference in itself and skimps on the rest. That's not to say there are no pop culture references, just not quite enough in my estimation.
Maybe my expectations were just in the wrong place. Dreamworks definitely seemed to make a concerted effort to distance Puss in Boots from the rest of the franchise and had I known that going in, perhaps I wouldn't have come out so disappointed. I really really wanted to like this movie. I really did. Puss was always my favorite character from the Shrek movies and when the movie started garnering a lot of critical praise I was pretty excited to see it. But at the end of the whole affair, I didn't feel like my $11 for a 3D matinee was completely justified.
Having said all of that though, I'm positive that the younger audiences will eat this movie up. And maybe that's where my expectations were misplaced; I was expecting something that had more cross-audience appeal and Puss in Boots is most decidedly a kids movie. As a kids movie, it's a solid home run. There's precious little bathroom humor and there's no denying the inherent charm of the characters.
If you, like me, go into this movie expecting some of the more mature humor and snarky writing of the Shrek movies - you'll probably wind up - like me - generally disappointed. But take the kids to see it, and if you don't enjoy it, I'll put money on the fact that it will at least be worth the value of enjoying it with them, because they'll love Puss in Boots.