Gore Verbinski and company may have pioneered the children's spaghetti Western with Rango, but Chris Miller and his crew might just have perfected it in Puss in Boots -- a visually dazzling, high-energy adventure exploring the origins of the swashbuckling feline. An unpredictable yarn driven by knowing adult humor and sweeping action, it skillfully avoids the cloying clichés of the Shrek series while still embracing the playful fairy-tale trappings that gave those films such widespread appeal.
Years ago, Puss in Boots (voice of Antonio Banderas) and Humpty Dumpty (voice of Zach Galifianakis) were just two young orphans who dreamed of acquiring the magical beans that would lead them on an adventure into the clouds. That dream appeared to die, however, when Humpty betrayed Puss by robbing the people of their village and leaving his furry pal behind to take the blame. Years later, Puss is preparing to steal the magic beans from feared outlaws Jack (voice of Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (voice of Amy Sedaris) when his mission is thwarted by stealthy Kitty Softpaws (voice of Salma Hayek), who is now partnered up with his old nemesis Humpty. When Humpty Dumpty and Kitty Softpaws convince a reluctant Puss to join them in stealing Jack and Jill's beans, it starts to look as if the egg and cat have buried the axe. But this is only the beginning of their big adventure, and before it's over a new legend will be born and a timeless fable will get an exciting new twist.
At this point in the Shrek franchise, most viewers probably aren't expecting much from a spin-off -- and who could blame them? Some might say that series ran out of steam two sequels ago, and, frankly, the prospect of yet another tired dance sequence featuring a radio-friendly hit has become far more grating than endearing. Fortunately for us, screenwriters Tom Wheeler and Chris Miller show little interest in following the familiar formula of the parent series. But should Miller's involvement with the Shrek series cast a shadow of doubt over his willingness to branch out, the presence of critically acclaimed fantasy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (serving as both executive producer and voice actor) should convince cynical cinephiles to give it a fair shake. And chances are they won't be sorry if they do: Not only have Wheeler and Miller turned out a delightfully nimble screenplay that rarely pauses for a catnap, but they also delight in throwing down wild cards that keep the action fresh as a newly cleaned litter box. And the colorful plot details of Puss in Boots are perfectly complimented by the film's vibrant, occasionally hyper-stylized visual scheme.
Meanwhile, the clever voice cast work just as hard behind the mics as Miller does behind the scenes. Thanks to a long history working together on camera, Banderas and Hayek have real chemistry as Puss in Boots and Kitty Softpaws, and Galifianakis' Humpty Dumpty provides a fascinating vocal contrast to his two co-stars while never revealing whether his character will ultimately turn out good or evil. Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton are inspired choices to play Jack and Jill, and even executive producer del Toro gets in on the fun by voicing a pair of characters. It's not every day that a faltering franchise gets reinvigorated, but by taking the fairy-tale formula to some surprising new places and refusing to bend to current trends, the team behind Puss in Boots deliver an adventure that takes some pretty big leaps, but always lands on its feet.