Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Foot Fetish

For 2011, I set out a few goals for myself with the intention being to expand my overall film knowledge and prowess. The first was to of course continue writing these posts three times a week, forcing me to see new things as often as possible. The second was to see every single Academy-Award nominated feature film for 2011, whether it be on the big screen or DVD. Finally, I had to stop ignoring major genres, especially animated films. I've missed a lot in the theater in recent years, most notably the second and third entries in the Toy Story series (which I still haven't seen) and Wall-E and Up (which I eventually did see on DVD). It's actually pretty funny how I often resign this genre to being "just for kids" when the best animated films have something for people of all ages, and even Up and Toy Story 3 were arguably geared more for adults than they were for kids. I DO like animated films in general (Beauty and the Beast is in my top 5 all time), but I often don't show it enough love. And so even though this year I've already missed a lawn ornament take on a Shakespeare classic (Gnomeo and Juliet) and one of the biggest box office bombs EVER (Mars Needs Moms), I've also made an effort to see a wild west/animal hybrid (Rango) and a sequel to a Best Animated Film nominee (Kung Fu Panda 2). This doesn't mean I'll go out of my way to see Cars 2 (I'm not COMPLETELY crazy), but I admit that I was at least interested in seeing Puss in Boots when I learned the Shrek character was getting his own westernized spin-off. I've never seen any of the Shrek films, but combining one part Antonio Banderas, one part Zorro, and one part cute fluffy cat was enough to keep up my interest, even without an extensive knowledge of the universe that spawned this sword-wielding pussy cat.

He's a bad kitty
In a story from before the days in which he traveled with a certain green ogre, Puss in Boots (Banderas) is an outlaw of the sandy deserts. Known for his flamboyant charm, rapier wit and sharp... rapier... Puss is an outlaw trying to clear his name of the wrongful accusations of which he has been charged. When he hears about a legend he had searched for much of his life, the Magic Beans, he cannot help but be intrigued, as he has been searching for most of his life for them. These beans are supposed to help lead to a magical castle and a goose that lays golden eggs. Knowing that just a few of those eggs will pay his debts and set him up for life, Puss teams up with old friend Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and clever cat burgler Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) to find the treasure before psychotic husband and wife Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris) get there first.

Never send an Egg to do a cat's job...
As with the Shrek franchise, Puss in Boots borrows liberally from children's folklore in manufacturing this story. It borrows mostly from nursery rhymes like Humpty Dumpty and Jack and Jill, and of course the magic beans and the golden goose come straight out of Jack and the Beanstalk. With the possible exception of Salma Hayek's character, there is very little in the way of original material; what IS original is the method in which it is used, borrowing from Shrek's parody universe but incorporating the Mariachi Western theme that makes it feel wholly unique. The animation is nearly top class, looking perhaps not as perfectly as Wall-E or even this year's Rango, but standing out in more than a few places. Music is where the film shines brightest however; between the score of Henry Pryce Jackman and two songs by acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela, the music manages to perfectly capture the magical and mysterious essences the film provides.

He hates to drink and run, but he will anyway
It's a shame the character design can't live up to the promise present in the film's lead. In Puss, Antonio Banderas has arguably his most well-known character, and a comeback of sorts after a steadily-decreasing level of importance in the Hollywood eye over the past decade. While it's ironic that a man so renowned for his sex appeal around the globe might be best recognized in this day and age as an orange tabby cat with an epee, to be recognized in this manner is no small feat, as it is Banderas' attitude and swagger that makes Puss so heroic and admirable. And Hayek comfortably slips between moods as Puss's equivalent Kitty Softpaws. If only Hayek (or the vocal director) could have actually made a decision as to whether or not Kitty actually has an accent. While most of her English is spotless, there is enough Mexicana poking through that one wonders whether she meant to do so or the people recording her voice just didn't care. Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton are good if underused as the villainous Jack and Jill, though they're no stretch from any similar characters in film. The only real disappointment is Zach Galifianakis, and that might not be entirely his fault. Every moment with Humpty Dumpty is relatively mediocre, and considering that we're not MEANT to like him, that's hardly a real surprise. However, Galifianakis was just not right for this role, as he doesn't have a compelling enough voice to go the animation career route. As proven in The Hangover and its sequel, he is a very physical actor, with his mannerisms complimenting his relatively deadpan voice to create perfect hilarity. Without actually being able to see the actor (and the character model is a poor replacement), there's no reason to really care about him.

Some cats just stand taller
And that matters, since we have to actually care about for the last act to carry any impact. Unfortunately, that is scarcely the case, as Puss in Boots fares well early on but limps sadly into the sunset. Remember how I said early on that the best animated films could be fun for adults too? Puss in Boots didn't get that memo, as what I saw was certainly entertaining for kids and failing miserably in its attempt to rope grown-ups into the mix. Certainly charming in its own right, Puss tries its hardest to become more than just a Shrek knockoff, but doesn't seem to know where to start. Still, with a true lack of big-name animated franchises these days (not to mention a record-breaking October debut), you can be sure that these filmmakers will be more than willing to try again in a few years.

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