Spin-offs are a tricky affair: for every Frasier, Mork and Mindy or Lou Grant there are a dozen efforts like Joey, Joanie Loves Chachie and W*A*L*T*E*R, an ill-fated pilot starring Gary Burghof as Walter ‘Radar’ O’Reilly from hit show M*A*S*H. Besides, if you asked any Shrek fan which character they’d most want to see in their own movie, they’d probably say wise-cracking, waffle-making Donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy. After all, he’s funny, deluded, and wound up marrying a dragon, with whom he fathered a brood of flying, flame-breathing miniature donkeys. What’s not to love? Instead, DreamWorks Animation has opted for swashbuckling feline Puss in Boots (Anotnio Banderas), who first appeared as an ‘ogre assassin’ in Shrek 2 (as a ploy to increase the franchise’s Latin American fan base), before settling in to the sequels as Donkey’s rival for the role of “annoying talking animal,” and Shrek’s best friend.
Given that Puss’s principle characteristics are a Latino accent, Zorro-style swordplay, disarmingly dilated pupils and, uh, boots, the writers had their work cut out for them, having to invent a character from whole cloth. It’s a task that wouldn’t be a problem for, say, Rango writer John Logan, but proves beyond the capabilities of the four credited screenwriters tasked with turning a direct-to-video spin-off (its original inception, after Puss’s success as a Shrek 2 supporting act) into a potential blockbuster, and perhaps even a stand-alone franchise freshener. Between the four of them, they can’t even come up with a decent backstory for the boots. Worse still, the director whose risible threequel almost wrecked Shrek’s happy ever after, has been put in charge, demonstrating the general level of dunderheadedness from which the whole enterprise suffers.
Plot-wise, things begin predictably enough, as Puss, wanted by the authorities for a crime he was tricked into committing, sets out to clear his name. After a largely pointless chase – similarly staged to one in Kung Fu Panda 2, but lacking the wit, exuberance or 3D-savvy of that film’s set-pieces – we are introduced to two new characters, neither of whom have the means to make up for Puss’s inadequacies as a foreground figure. The first is Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, lazily cast), so-called because she is an exceptionally light-fingered thief. The second, more resistible newcomer is Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), a character from Puss’s past whose appearance prompts a twenty-minute flashback covering not only Puss’s backstory (the usual parent-free claptrap about being orphaned and left on a doorstep), but also his and Humpty’s early misadventures, which destroys any narrative momentum before it has had a chance to develop.The film never recovers. By the time the plot kicks in, around the thirty-minute mark, Puss in Boots already feels like it’s struggling to pad itself out to feature length. Ignoring the origin story set forth in Charles Perrault’s original tale (“Le Maistre Chat, ou Le Chat Botté”, first published in 1697), the screenwriters plump for a laboured, unconvincing reworking of the Jack and the Beanstalk story, with Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) re-imagined as an overweight brute and merged with folklore’s other Jack, he of falling-down-and-breaking-his-crown fame. To be fair, the Shrek films aren’t renowned for the intricacies of their plotting, but even by the standards of its antecedents, Puss’s storyline is pretty threadbare.
Of course, that’s not to suggest that Puss in Boots is made for the same audience who enjoyed Banderas’ other 2011 star turn, in Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In – obviously it’s for ankle-biters, who turned out in droves Stateside just to the little kitty kat doff his hat and do the puppy-dog eye routine, and pause dramatically between the word ‘Puss’ and ‘in Boots.’ But even the little ones might expect a few decent jokes along the way, rather than the direct-to-DVD-level humour on display here. As the plot drags on, the one or two half-decent gags near the start – mostly cat-related comedy, like having Puss distracted, mid-fight, by a darting light – begin to look like flukes, and the humour and charm are gone long before the credits roll.
After the powerful one-two punch of How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots represents a qualitative step backwards for DreamWorks Animation. The studio may have struck box office gold with this cut-rate Shrek spin-off, but, creatively speaking, it’s laid an egg.