November 12, 2011

Puss In Boots (11/12/2011)

Lettergrade: C-

My wife and I are big cat freaks, and as such DreamWorks Animation's Puss In Boots probably had our ticket money sewn up months before the film itself actually arrived in theaters. The first 15 minutes or so - wherein we are reintroduced to the Antonio Banders-voiced "Puss," a deadly feline soldier of fortune - are where the most potent anthropomorphized kitty material is rolled out. After the A material has been used, however, the picture wanders squarely into direct-to-video territory and never entirely returns.

Now the Puss character himself is great... He first appeared in 2004's Shrek 2 and for some reason stuck around while the sequels got progressively shittier in 2007 and 2010. The key thing that plagued parts 3 and (I assume) 4 was the unremarkable story work: The fairly non-existent plotting combined with the piss-poor character stuff and the borderline nauseating pop culture references (to say nothing of its unforgivable use of Smash Mouth songs). I think that the same is what prevents Puss In Boots from being much more than a moderately enjoyable time-filler on the whole. In fact, I might place it a little above the last several Shrek movies in that it's essentially a Shrek film where you don't have to put up with Shrek himself.

The picture quasi-explores the backstory of Puss, and details his childhood in a Spanish orphanage where he was friends with the duplicitous Humpty Dumpty, voiced by Zach Galifianakis. Humpty (pictured right) harbors a life-long obsession with finding the Magic Beans of legend so he can then logically climb the resulting beanstalk up to the Giant's Castle in the clouds, which houses the Goose Who Lays Golden Eggs... etc. Long story short, Puss and Humpty have a falling out, and Puss is implicated in a bank robbery, forcing him to flee the town in disgrace. Years later, the two cross paths again and reluctantly join forces to continue the quest to get the beans from crazed hillbillies Jack and Jill , who are not both played by Adam Sandler, but instead voiced by Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton, both of whom must have needed the work.

Humpty's intentions aren't entirely pure, of course, and once his ulterior motives are revealed, almost none of what he does or says in the film makes any sense on any level whatsoever. My head is still hurting from trying to comprehend it all, really. If the movie has a key problem it is that it spends far too much time on its uninteresting villain and that the overly convoluted plot that never really builds much steam.

And it occurred to me part-way through the movie that I don't even know much about the "Puss In Boots" nursery rhyme in the first place, apart from the very general premise of there being a cat who wears boots. A quick Wikipedia search resulted in this:
"Master Cat; or, The Booted Cat" (early French: Le Maître Chat, ou Le Chat Botté), commonly known as "Puss in Boots", is a French literary fairy tale about a cat who uses trickery and deceit to gain power, wealth, and the hand of a princess in marriage for his penniless and low-born master.

Doesn't seem to have much to do with the movie, huh? Not a lot of swordplay or mock Zorro shit in there... they didn't even stick with Puss's original nationality. Now the film never claimed to be closely based on it in the first place or anything, but you know what I'm saying…

I think the moment that finally set my curiosity off was when Little Boy Blue showed up for a brief comedy cameo. At that point, it became clear to me that a key concept throughout all the Shrek adventures is to work in fairy tale and nursery rhyme references ad nasuem (ala Seth MacFarlane) without much relevance to what the source material is even about (also ala Seth MacFarlane). Even if you only know the poem's first line (as I do) - "Little Boy Blue come blow your horn" - you can probably guess that it's a mocking piece about some public figure who was deemed to be arrogant and self-aggrandizing. The character in the movie is literally blue. And he has a horn (which, mercifully is never blown, at least not on camera). Outside of that, his presence in the film really isn't designed to do much more than trigger a fuzzy memory of something you maybe kinda sorta remember, but don't really know too much about.

This sort of thing bothered me even back in the first picture, released in 2001, which always came off like a mean spirited "fuck you" letter to Disney in my opinion, seeing as DreamWorks SKG co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg (and current DWA chief) was unceremoniously fired from Disney in 1994, and used his renowned salesmanship to convince director/producer Steven Spielberg and media mogul David Geffen to launch a new media company almost as an act of pique against his old employer. Shrek threw a bunch of public domain characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes together into into a hodgepodge concept which briefly mocked and satirized storybook cliches and conventions before turning around and using many of them toward the end of the movie. But the references and uses were random, senseless and almost indiscriminate... As if pointing to some massive in-joke that we, the audience, were on the outside of.

Is it stupid that I'm putting any effort at all into complaining about this? Perhaps, but in response to that charge, I will tell you that part-way through the flick, I looked around the packed theater and saw at least a dozen faces staring down at smartphones, completely oblivious to the film or even to their own kids who had dragged them to see it. The dude sitting across the aisle from me, who wore an oversized Raiders hat and pants that were at least three sizes too baggy, tore his eyes away from whatever was happening on his iPhone exactly once: To let out a solitary, perfunctory laugh at an early gag that his kids had found hilarious.

We're still a few months away from parenthood ourselves... my hope is that I will remain a guy who actually pays attention to children's movies and cares about them being good and making sense, as opposed to this guy I'm talking about, who had resigned himself to attending a movie with his kids in body only and clearly couldn't have given less of a shit about what was happening on screen.

Who knows... maybe I'll get there. Or maybe I'll get lucky, and my kids will want to stick to movies that aim a little higher than Puss In Boots does.

My journal entry on 2007's Shrek The Third, the last Shrek movie I will ever pay to see.

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