Even though DreamWorks Animation has actually been dropping decent animated features lately, there's no reason to expect much from its latest: a threatened backtrack to the vacuous pop-reference fests of the Shrek movies (and worse, one poised to start a spinoff franchise). But Puss in Boots proves surprisingly entertaining, despite traces of the anarchic, anachronistic attitude that got increasingly off-putting over four Shrek sagas.
Puss is basically an origin tale for the title character (voiced by Antonio Banderas), the swashbuckling feline outlaw who became a member of the Shrekking crew in the second movie. The flick that results is a weird mashup of fairy-tale lore and spaghetti Western, as Puss hooks back up with former blood brother turned sworn enemy Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) in an effort to steal magic beans from murderous criminals Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, both getting all cornpone with it).
Directed by Chris Miller (Shrek the Third), Puss never achieves the same level of sophisticated, introspective storytelling that made Kung Fu Panda 2 an unexpected pleasure earlier this year. Thankfully, though, it largely avoids the Shrek sequels' annoying spot-the-reference gags and shameless schmaltz. It also keeps its narrative and visuals consistently fresh and intriguing — no small feat for a movie about a talking, swordfighting cat.
Executive producer Guillermo del Toro, who does a voice cameo here (and did some consulting work on Kung Fu Panda 2), likely deserves some of the credit. But the lion's share of the entertainment value comes from Banderas, a cat who can't turn off the charisma even when his face is obscured. Giving off rakish charm and a welcome spirit of self-mockery, he's a kitty that kids and moms alike will want to take home.
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