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Friday, December 2, 2011

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 3 December, 2011, retrieved from

Voice Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris

Director: Chris Miller

Rating: 4 stars

For a man who shot to fame playing gay characters, Antonio Banderas morphed rather quickly into the Casanova Everywoman longed to be kidnapped by.  Even when he was being cuckolded and conned, he had an aura of charm, a certain allure that conveyed that he was somehow beyond all this. When he plays a cat parodying the roles his post-Almodóvar years have yielded, he clearly enjoys caricaturing the animal magnetism Hollywood made him radiate.

Puss in Boots brought panache to the Shrek franchise, and rescued parts of most of its bad movies. However, we’ve learnt to be wary of spinoffs. And there are plenty of ways the womanising – well, tabby-ising – feline could fail to carry the burden of an entire film on his furry shoulders. I walked in fearing all the clichés – a hackneyed story replete with a sentimental romance and guest appearances by the ogre family or, far worse, the donkey and the besotted dragon. Turns out Puss in Boots is almost entirely free of those. And in the capable hands – or voice – of Banderas, the movie is quite delightful, especially if you went in with the low expectations the deteriorating Shrek series has induced.

A contented tabby mews in protest as the cavalier fugitive addresses her by the wrong name in his whispered farewell, and when his stealthy escape bid goes wrong, her owner tumbles out of bed and shakes his fist at the retreating gato, yelling, “You cannot run forever, Puss in Boots!”, even as his ravished cat sighs out a mournful purr. But that is exactly what he will do.

The movie traces the tragic back-story of Puss in Boots, from when the “Pequeño” landed up in the arms of his human mama, through a boyhood friendship with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), to the life of an outlaw. Spoofing melodrama with music and Westerns with split-screens, and rife with the charismatic hyperbolic jargon of the Spanish rake, the movie cheerfully satirises Latin pride, showcasing the fictitious Festival del Fuego y el Pollo and translating it as “The Festival of Fire...and the Chicken” in Banderas’ husky voice for the audience’s benefit. The story subverts several fairytales and nursery rhymes – Jack and the Beanstalk, The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, Humpty Dumpty, and Jack and Jill. Some excellent voice acting ensures that reinvented appearance is not the only value addition from these characters.

A catfight with a competitor, complete with mask and aggressive gestures gives way to an offer of leche, even as hot-stepping and tap-dancing yield to cha-cha-cha and flamenco, and the vain Puss in Boots is capitulated by the acerbic Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). Banderas and Hayek, coming together for the sixth time, throw their considerable sex appeal into their voices. Their chemistry is apparent, especially in the sessions they recorded together, upon Banderas’ suggestion. They dish out an amusing commentary on gender roles in relationships. Kitty shudders, “It must hurt to push those out!” as a goose poops golden eggs, and Puss groans, “Won’t you let it go?” as she repeatedly brings up an initial gaffe of his. Billy Bob Thornton grunts out his stupid lines in a voice one struggles to reconcile with him, in an inverted parallel commentary by Jack and Jill.

Quite early into the movie, the viewer knows the 3D will be utilised rather well here. Yes, you do get trampled on a couple of times, but the filmmakers have understood what many have failed to – that the thrill of 3D is more effective when the viewer gets pulled into the movie than when characters jump out. The flourishes by the graphics team – a reflection in the mirror, a dilated pupil, an image in the iris, a tantalising fire, a mellow sunset, the individual leaves on a tree fluttering as blades of grass sway below, the play of light and vapour – have become an intrinsic feature of animation, with the art of miniature being married to advances in technology. But this distracts less than it fascinates, especially that generation of us who didn’t own computers till we were in our teens, laptops till we were in our twenties, and associated ‘mouse’ with Jerry sooner than with Jobs.

The sardonic humour is targeted mostly at adults, but the film keeps the kids entertained, with punny jeers like “Look what the cat dragged in!”, plenty of gags and a plethora of...well, egging on. The ribald wordplay is sophisticated enough for parents not to have to worry about awkward questions, but they’d be well-advised to concoct a connection between catnip and glaucoma. Pithy asides – Puss yells out that the belief that cats always land on their feet is a rumour spread by dogs – and perfect comic timing are bolstered by in-jokes, not the least of which is the inspired casting of animator Bob Persichetti as the “Ohhh Cat” and executive producer Guillermo del Toro as the Comandante.

The storyline is a cautious one, as if the producers were testing the waters to see whether the swashbuckling, sword-wielding, feather-sporting cat could actually pull off his own independent movie. The narrative follows a formula and the dynamics of the characters’ relationships are more unpredictable than the events. However, the complexities within this safe-bet film are a sign of animation maturing beyond happily-ever-after cartoons – not everyone’s a good egg, you know! At one point, they even bung in a statement about cruelty to animals. With the promise of a series, one hopes the next edition will do justice to Antonio Banderas’ potential.


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