Puss in Boots is an adventure movie, but the advertising and the film’s first act would like you to believe otherwise. The filmmakers can’t be held responsible for DreamWorks Animation’s marketing campaign, but they can take the blame for setting up their movie as an action-comedy before choosing to drop the jokes and shifting into a rote adventure film that takes no chances, makes dated references, and short-changes its title character. Ironically, the technical aspects of the movie are full of passion, but the story is as soulless and calculated as they come.
Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is out for adventure and he picks up news of a big score at a local tavern. The quest is for the magic beans that will lead up the beanstalk and to The Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs. The beans are currently in the possession of the grotesque Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), but Puss believes he can steal the magic legumes. His attempt is thwarted when his heist is interrupted by the thief Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), who is trying to steal the beans for Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). Puss and Humpty have a history and the film slams on the breaks so Puss can regale their backstory. When he finishes his tale and Kitty has fallen asleep, we understand why.
The movie starts out as an action-comedy. The opening chase feels lively, Banderas still relishes voicing the character, and the film makes good use of the fact that Puss is a charming renegade but still does adorable cat things like chasing reflected light and lapping up milk. And then there’s an extended dance fight sequence between Puss and Kitty where the movie turns from comedy to an action-adventure. There film has to go out of its way to throw a joke into that scene by basically having a background cat make an “Oh no you didn’t!” noise (this joke is then used twice more over the course of the movie and loses all impact). But the dance sequence doesn’t go for laughs and neither does the remainder of the movie. It’s not trying to make jokes (and the audience full of non-laughing kids in my theater confirmed this), but send its lead character on an adventure.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. If Puss in Boots had succeeded as a rousing adventure film, I would have whole-heartedly approved. But the adventure is unimaginative and by-the-numbers. Structurally and logically, there’s nothing wrong with the story, but there’s nothing daring about it either. It goes exactly where you expect at the pace you expect it, and there’s nothing along the way to make it come alive. The obvious solution would be to give Puss a larger role and let him bring his adorable energy to the story. But Puss in Boots pushes its title character into being part of an ensemble thereby losing its greatest asset. The movie gives almost as much attention to Humpty Dumpty and his arc is better defined than Puss’. Puss is a scene-stealer in the Shrek movies, but it’s as if the writers and directors didn’t know what to do with him as a lead and hedged by playing up another character. As a result, we have a movie that isn’t funny, doesn’t feature the character we want, but still expects us to enjoy the ride.
To be fair, Puss in Boots looks the part. With a sharper and more imaginative script, it would be far easier to get wrapped up in the action. The superb animation, which is bolstered by the 3D, paints a wonderful world and the animators clearly reveled in blending fairy-tale imagery with a classic Spanish setting. But the real stand-out is the music by Henry Jackman and Mexican musical duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela. Their score manages to capture and enhance, thrilling, and upbeat tone of the Zorro-type film Puss in Boots so badly wants to be.
Outside the music and the animation, Puss in Boots sticks so rigidly to the recipe for an adventure that it forgets to add its own flavor. It doesn’t know how to lead, is unsure of how to implement its protagonist, takes time away from Puss to focus more on Humpty Dumpty, and as a result loses all the energy necessary to make the audience feel the adventure. Instead, I just felt like going home and watching The Mask of Zorro.