The "Shrek" movies may not even exist as far we're concerned in "Puss in Boots," which is fine, because they just kept getting worse; last year's "Shrek Forever After," in 3-D, felt especially flat. But the franchise reboots anew here, if you'll pardon the pun, with great energy, creativity and aplomb.
This spin-off is actually a prequel, providing the origin story of the diminutive, swashbuckling kitty voiced with great charisma, as always, by Antonio Banderas. The role has been an ideal showcase for Banderas to have a little fun with his suave, sophisticated image; he revels in Puss' playfulness and faux bravado as well as his genuine courage and heart.
At the film's start, Puss is an outlaw in his own small, Spanish hometown. Flashbacks take us to his childhood at an orphanage, where he was best friends with a brainy, ambitious Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). Together, the two dreamed of stealing the magic beans, climbing the beanstalk and getting rich off some golden eggs. Now, that crime has become Humpty's obsession; he tries to enlist Puss as the brawn of the operation, which would allow both to enjoy some redemption.
Humpty's partner in this caper is the dangerous master thief Kitty Softpaws, voiced with slinky seduction by Banderas' frequent co-star, Salma Hayek. It's a clever collaboration that doesn't feel like stunt casting, as is the case with many animated films; they're so good together after so long, it just makes sense.
But since Puss is a lover as much as he's a fighter, you know he'll find a way to win her over — and there is definitely a Pepe LePew vibe to the way they flirt with each other. A dance-off between the two characters early on, when Kitty is still disguised and Puss is unaware she's a woman, is both exquisitely choreographed and hilariously funny.
The Puss in Boots character eventually felt like the best part of the "Shrek" movies, but a little of him goes a long way. Giving him an entire movie of his own would seem like a stretch, and really, he has trouble sustaining his shtick for the film's 90-minute running time. But for quick, lively, family friendly entertainment, "Puss in Boots" works just fine, even in 3-D, which is integrated thoughtfully into the narrative and doesn't just feel like a gimmick. Through chases, swordfights, dance sequences and even a flight into the clouds, the 3-D consistently provides a feeling of propulsive motion. (The glasses are still clunky and uncomfortable, but that's another conversation for another time.)
Puss looks so soft and fluffy and tactile in his little, leather boots, his jaunty, feathered hat and his shiny sword, you'll want to reach out and pet him — especially when he's a tiny kitten working those big, green eyes for maximum manipulative effect. But just as impressive is the way the film from director Chris Miller ("Shrek the Third") gives detailed expression and personality to a talking egg. Merely the idea that Humpty Dumpty might be a criminal mastermind is good for a laugh, but Galifianakis infuses the character with a healthy mix of neediness and megalomania. He gets so into the character, you might not even realize it's him under that shell until the credits roll.
The same is true of Jack and Jill, who are depicted as greedy and fearsome and are voiced with complexity (and perfect Southern twangs, naturally) by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris. Their relationship reflects the best of what the "Shrek" movies have offered over the years: an unexpected twist on the fairy tales you know and love.
Thankfully there's a lot more of that kind of inspired writing — and not nearly so many pop-culture references and Hollywood in-jokes — this time around. Puss likes to dance, but he never does the Macarena.
"Puss in Boots," a DreamWorks Animation release, is rated PG for some adventure action and mild rude humor. Running time: 90 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.