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"PUSS IN BOOTS"
(2011) (voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Adventure: A feline swashbuckler reunites with his former but now estranged friend, and joins another cat in hopes of stealing Jack's magic beans and using the resultant beanstalk to retrieve the golden egg-laying goose.
PLOT:
Puss in Boots (voice of ANTONIO BANDERAS) is a diminutive feline swashbuckler with a big attitude who travels the countryside alone. He has two quests, one of which is to get his paws on the magic beans owned by the married outlaws Jack (voice of BILLY BOB THORNTON) and Jill (voice of AMY SEDARIS). Legend has it that those beans, when buried at the right spot, will grown into a gigantic beanstalk leading up to the heavens where a kingdom exists, complete with a goose that lays golden eggs.

His other desire is to clear his name with the people of the town of San Ricardo where he grew up in an orphanage run by the kind and caring Imelda (voice of CONSTANCE MARIE). It's there that he met fellow orphan Humpty Dumpty (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS), a true egg-head with a knack for inventing things and the criminal desire -- that Puss later adopted as well -- for those magic beans. But after Puss became a local hero and gave up his criminal ways, Humpty continued to be bad, including dragging an unaware Puss into a bank robbery. As a result, he's been a wanted outcast ever since.

Learning that Jack and Jill are nearby, Puss plots his snatching of those magic beans, but must contend with a masked feline who's after the same thing. She turns out to be Kitty Softpaws (voice of SALMA HAYEK), and their initially antagonistic introduction leads to Puss' reunion with Humpty. From that point on, the three make an unlikely team with the goal of getting those beans, ascending the beanstalk and getting the goose and its golden eggs. But they must contend with the repercussions of that, as well as unexpected developments along the way.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Although their artistic merits are sometimes dubious and often take a back seat to financial interests, spin-offs are nothing new in the world of entertainment. Band members have been known to split away from the group that made them famous to pursue solo gigs. TV shows have been known to spawn new series where supporting characters get to become the stars (to varying degrees of success).

Less often but certainly not uncommon, movies occasionally will spin-off supporting characters into their own projects where they similarly become the leads. Such is the case with "Puss in Boots," a new computer-animated flick featuring the diminutive but suave and swashbuckling feline from the ultra-popular "Shrek" films.

Considering the quality of those offers has been dropping steadily since the delightful and funny initial debut back in 2001, we can obviously be happy that we're not being subjected to "Shrek IV: Flatulent Ever After." That said, with the filmmaker of the last big green ogre offering also helming this project, I can't deny I was a little apprehensive going in, what with that previous flick pretty much draining the franchise of any goodwill it had previously built up.

Perhaps taking criticism leveled at that predecessor to heart, director Chris Miller -- working from a script by Tom Wheeler and David H. Steinberg -- has delivered a far better film and one that can standalone without any previous knowledge of and/or exposure to the "Shrek" flicks. Designed as a prequel to the original film, it's not the first time the character has headlined a movie as there have been many others over the decades featuring the cat tale originally penned by Charles Perrault in his 1697 fairytale.

But I doubt any of those follow the trajectory of this one. Like the "Shrek" flicks and those old "Fractured Fairy Tales" that inspired them, this one puts a lively spin on well-known fairy tales, but thankfully avoids the wink-wink, contemporary nudging that Shrek and company exhibited in their flicks. The result is a Spaghetti Western as mixed with Zorro and childhood fairy tale characters, peppered with old-school romantic bantering (courtesy of another feline with a name nearly right out of a 007 pic -- Kitty Softpaws), an old monster movie moment and enough action, adventure and laughs, not to mention a cat lover's version of cinematic nirvana, to keep audiences of all ages engaged for the 90-some minute runtime.

That might sound like an awful lot to cram into one movie, with the potential for being a convoluted, identity-confused mess or at least a hodgepodge of said material. Thankfully, Miller and company keep it all under control and near effortlessly keep things moving along at a brisk clip from start to finish. And what makes most of that work so well is the way the characters have been drawn, fleshed out and vocalized.

As he proved in the "Shrek" flicks, Antonio Banderas is pitch-perfect as the feline, and the actor's reunion with his long-ago "Desperado" co-star, Salma Hayek (as Miss Kitty -- no, not the "Gunsmoke" saloon-keeper, but the aforementioned fraulein, I mean feline Softpaws), works incredibly well. The chemistry is there between them, and the vocal work is spot on, while all of the cat details nicely touched home for this cat lover.

Zach Galifianakis is similarly quite good as the devious but also tormented Humpty Dumpty, a former fellow orphan who grew up with the young Puss (cue the cute kitten footage) and whose desire for the golden egg-laying goose of Jack and the Beanstalk fame drives most of the plot. Billy Bob Thornton & Amy Sedaris -- as Jack's wife Jill -- are appropriately menacing as the film's villains, and a big "beast" at the end provides some King Kong style climactic material.

While the film didn't blow me away like the best (but not all) Pixar offerings have done in the past, it's solid entertainment from top to bottom, with enough cute, fun, funny and adventurous moments to delight most viewers. Hopefully there won't be a sequel to dilute the offering, but as a standalone project, "Puss in Boots" is pretty close to purr-fect (I know, bad pun). It rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed October 20, 2011 / Posted October 28, 2011


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