Did you know that Jack and Jill of fairy-tale lore wound up married? So far as I could gather as a child, they were merely brother and sister, and for all we’re told in the Shrek spin-off, Puss in Boots, they might still be. What really matters is that Jack has the magic beans, the beans that grow the beanstalk that leads to the magic castle that hides the Golden Goose, and it’s this fortunate fowl that Humpty-Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) wants to keep for himself. The problem is, the rotund brainiac can’t get those beans himself. He’ll need the, well, cat-like reflexes of estranged childhood pal Puss (Antonio Banderas) and the equally frisky Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek -- Desperado reunion!).
This is the point we’ve reached with our kiddie fare. Who needs one traditional fairy tale when a spin-off of a send-up bearing its own genre influences -- Puss, Kitty, and Humpty as the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, reimagined as the Noble, the Suave, and the Misguided -- will do? Don’t worry: I’m not decrying the endless, effortless repurposing of anything and everything remotely enjoyable (not today, anyway). Puss is a generally amusing time-waster, if distinctly falling into the minor ranks of DreamWorks Animation, and yes, I do believe there’s such a distinction to be made in the wake of How to Train Your Dragon and the original Shrek.
But enough hair-splitting! (More like fur-splitting! Sorry.) Many of the jokes are derived from obvious touches of anthropomorphization -- it’s made clear from the start that Puss tends to be a lover and leaver -- and even simpler displays of familiar feline behavior (and if egg puns are your thing, then boy, are you in luck). But much of the actually effective humor comes from goofier gags, such as the cheeky use of split-screens, the charming introduction of ancillary characters who pop up just to make things awkward, the fleeting equivalence between catnip and marijuana, and the sly role reversal between Billy Bob Thornton’s Jack and Amy Sedaris’ Jill (he wants a baby; she’s not interested).
Save for an extended origin story flashback, the length of which makes for its own nudging joke, director Chris Miller (Shrek the Third) keeps the ball of yarn rolling, and while the look of the land is expectedly lush throughout, the Spanish villas and desert environments can’t help but pale a bit in comparison to the similarly striking settings of this year’s other animation Western, Rango. The voice casting of Banderas and Hayek is about as seductively spot-on as one would imagine, though Galifianakis couldn’t be much more generically whiny and scheming.
Does any of this really justify a Shrek sidekick getting his very own franchise? Not quite, but far be it from me to kill off this particular golden goose. By design, Puss in Boots is amiable enough to validate its own existence. The character may be here to save the day, but the movie’s only here to pass the time and it does that just fine.