Hairball, anyone? When faced with the imminent completion of the saga of Shrek, the powers that be at Dreamworks Animation made the only possible decision they could to keep the peace among the masses begging, nay, clamoring for another installment.
Expanded universe, baby!
After four Shrek features, this weekend sees the release of the first film focused solely on Diablo Gato himself, the always-groomed, horrifyingly shod, furious feline, Puss In Boots. As 2004’s Shrek 2 is the first occasion that the Terrifying Tabby appears, it’s only right that he be placed in mortal combat against his only worthy foe – himself! Well, there’s also an ogre, a talking donkey, a wooden puppet and an incredibly large gingerbread man, but I do not think that Gingerhead or the others will retreat in the face of these odds. Do you?
Uno, dos, tres, lucha!
Set before Puss’ first meeting with Shrek and company, Puss In Boots finds our hero (brought to auditory life by the furry fury of Antonio Banderas) a wanted pussycat, on the lam from the law under dubious circumstances. When not watching his tail and paw-prints closely, he continues on a lifelong quest to find the eternally elusive magic beans of Jack and the Beanstalk fame.
Unfortunately, the murderous fiends known as Jack and Jill are in possession of said legumes. In pursuit of his goal, Puss winds up in the unexpected company of an old frenemy, Humpty Dumpty (Zack Galifianikis) and the beguiling beauty, Kitty Softpaws (voiced by the perpetually sultry Salma Hayek). Can he trust them? Should he trust them? And will the beans ultimately lead to the infamous Golden Goose (voiced by an unnamed, hard-working young goose) and her bevy of golden eggs?
The Defending Champion
After the nearly half-billion dollar gross of 2001’s Shrek, a sequel was inevitable, and Shrek 2 picks up where the preceding box-office behemoth leaves off. Shrek (Mike Myers again), having found happiness through true love’s first kiss, embarks with Fiona (Cameron Diaz) on the road toward a much more mysterious opponent: marital bliss.
Shortly after their honeymoon, the young couple are invited by Fiona’s parents, the king and queen of Far, Far Away, to come over for a little family bonding time and some post-wedding merriment with the subjects of the realm. Unfortunately, what they don’t know could really hurt them. The Fairy Godmother’s long-standing connection with King Harold gives her the persistent idea that her son, Charming, should be the man on Fiona’s arm and subsequent heir to the throne, and she hires Puss In Boots, the kingdom’s deadliest assassin, to dispatch Shrek. After he fails, Shrek, Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy, no doubt preparing for his eventual role as Oscar host), and a newly humbled Puss must find a way to overcome a bevy of enchantments that threaten to separate Shrek and Fiona forever.
The Shrek universe that began as a picture book created by one William Steig is a rich one, filled with colorful sights, sounds and a wonderfully irreverent attitude toward a fairytale mythos grounded in hundreds of years of telling and re-telling. As such, the possibilities for combining even the unlikeliest of characters and scenarios are almost endless.
The approach that Puss In Boots takes is a significant departure from the franchise’s typical modus operandi. Traditionally, as in the case of Shrek 2, each film creates a mixture of fairytale and pop-culture sensibility. While Puss In Boots does the same, it does so at a very different speed. Shrek 2 is a buddy movie built around already beloved characters with a significant expansion of the world of the franchise, while Puss In Boots follows a much more straightforward set of conventions within the narrative of the heroic quest.
One of the strongest aspects of Shrek 2 is the relentless nature of the gags. For example, when Shrek and Donkey attempt to impersonate members of the workers’ union at the Fairy Godmother’s potion manufacturing (or is that “brewing”?) plant, the receptionist reveals that he doesn’t get dental insurance. Or when Charming and his mother’s late-night trip to the drive-through ends up with them in possession of the free battleaxe that comes with the “medieval meal.” In these cases and countless others, Shrek 2 keeps the laughs coming by playing its world of enchantment against our own pop culture sensibilities. What elevates the material is the writers’ and directors’ firm hand and weathered eye on the single strongest aspect of the franchise, the relationship between Shrek and Donkey. No matter what shenanigans take place, what’s most important is that these guys are kept happy and safe. Shrek’s just the kind of guy you don’t like to see get sad.
Puss In Boots’ smaller scale works surprisingly well, as does the decision to pull this minor supporting character from earlier films and build a franchise around him. When compared to Pixar’s well intentioned but somewhat misguided move to make Mater the lead in Cars 2, Puss In Boots works very well indeed. Banderas’ vocal acumen serves as the film’s true anchor and fits the character beautifully. Listening to Puss relate his life story, hearing him order “Uno leche, por favor” at the local bar, and hearing that voice come out of a young Puss in a flashback sequence provide for some wonderfully funny highlights.
Where the new film doesn’t quite measure up is in its dependence on the relationship between Puss and Humpty Dumpty, which is fundamentally different from the one shared by Shrek and Donkey. The ass and ogre are relatively new acquaintances who’ve struck the unexpected goldmine of lifelong friendship and have clear motives for action, while the cat and egg have a longstanding, complex relationship and a murky dynamic as a duo.
Deciding to go to a drastically different scale for an expanded universe film isn’t necessarily a bad move. However, in the case of Puss In Boots, the film suffers from being a little too straightforward. Once the film settles into a rhythm, there aren’t a lot of surprises to be found, nor is there the relentless barrage of effective gags that gives Shrek 2 its vibrancy. Furthermore, Puss and his cohorts, while often entertaining, just aren’t as deeply sympathetic as Shrek, Donkey, and Fiona. While Puss In Boots is a solid entry into the expanded canon and a nice way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon, Shrek 2 is the clear winner here.
I just hope Puss doesn’t look at me with those eyes after reading this. If he’s standing there, hat in hand, I’m not sure I’ll be able to resist.