“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) announces towards the end of his self-titled adventure. Unfortunately, the movie itself has violated us in innumerable ways by then, so he’s lying. Puss in Boots doesn’t so much continue the Shrek franchise as bury its desiccated corpse in the dead of night. The wit and satire of the first film has vanished, replaced by a milquetoast homunculi assembled by the most hackneyed form of studio groupthink imaginable. Beware its shambling form, its soulless dead eyes, and the diarrhetic splatter that passes for its visual look. It may be the scariest thing you’ll see this Halloween.
Ostensibly, it’s nothing of the sort, of course. Ostensibly, it presents a new corner of the Shrek-verse from the eyes of one of its most beloved characters. This section of Fairy Tale Land has more in common with Sergio Leone than the Brothers Grimm: dusty plains and bluffs separating wee villages populated by rampaging Spanish stereotypes. But it still holds characters we may know, including a rotund pair of outlaws named Jack and Jill (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), a decidedly shifty Humpty Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifanakis) and a golden goose that all of them pursue.
Puss himself (voiced as always by Antonio Banderas) acts as a benevolent sword for hire: interested in clearing his name and gaining the golden goose himself. His tired quest entails a lot of backstory shoveled at us – a past with Humpty, a surrogate mother he’s trying to make proud – as well as a feisty love interest (voiced by Salma Hayek) whose existence may set a new record for the least amount of creative energy ever spent in a Hollywood production. The characters all take on a stock quality that flattens the jokes and leaves them drained of all vitality almost before they arrive. Puss himself – a character with tremendous potential for his own show – proves to be nothing more than a one-trick pony. The Latin lover act got stale sometime in the middle of Shrek 3, and this effort does nothing to improve matters. Banderas possesses the fire, but the script gives him nowhere to go. He’s left shouldering a lot of stale kitty jokes and flinging his reheated Zorro routine at us like so much horse flop.
The remainder of the cast soon follows suit, hampered by a storyline that wouldn’t pass muster as a direct-to-video castoff. Not a single figure here betrays any warmth or humanity. They’re instruments of the plot, pushing the narrative forward in dull, plodding steps like survivors of the Bataan Death March. The film’s long development process speaks to the pulverized mush of a storyline on display; plans were drawn up soon after Shrek 2 in 2004 and it has struggled in development hell ever since. At no point in those seven long years did anything original or inventive enter the picture. If it did, it died a quick death, to be replaced by dribbling cliché. The corporate homogenization bleeds off the screen in unbearable waves, silenced only by the yawns of small children and the scrambling sounds of adults checking their watches.
If the visuals looked better, then at least something could be salvaged from it, but here too Puss in Boots drops the ball. It starts out by alternating dark blue shadows with dusty tan plains; a spaghetti western look that clashes with the fairy tale elements instead of merging with it into an interesting whole. It looks shoddy and second-rate in comparison to Rango, which used similar imagery to much greater effect. And that doesn’t even take the 3D into account. Not since Clash of the Titans has a film become such a muddy fog under the effect of those infernal glasses: irrefutable proof of the dead end the gimmick has become.
One may be inclined to ask why Puss in Boots arouses such passions, when worse films have graced our screen this year. But few are more indicative of a moviemaking system utterly out of ideas, and so desperate to prop up a fading franchise that they stoop to… to… well, this. The original Shrek demonstrated a freshness and vitality that we too easily dismiss: the sense that mainstream filmmaking could produce something truly original. The idea became the institution a long time ago, though that doesn’t stop the system from shaking every last dollar out of its exhausted corpse. You’ll never find a more telling example of Hollywood profit-mongering than Puss in Boots: the crushed cigarette butt at the end of a once proud animation legacy.