In the larger narrative, Puss in Boots may have been in some phase of production since The Aviator was in theaters, but it feels as if its arrival more or less coincides with the recent New York Times puff piece on John Lasseter, where the Cars 2 director sat with Brooks Barnes over a chicken parm in West Hollywood and vented his spleen over the way critics destroyed his movie. He went on to defend it in terms of the half-billion it grossed at the worldwide box office, brilliantly tying off the interview by claiming that he doesn’t read reviews anyway. The fortuitous timing seems to beg the question: After 16 years of more or less stellar films, are we supposed to abandon Pixar in favor of the next best thing, the almost-there extravaganzas of DreamWorks Animation?
As tempting as it sounds, especially in light of Lassie’s October 17th pity party, the answer is no. Compared to Pixar’s masterpiece machine, DreamWorks’s track record, Shrek and non-Shrek, has consistently been defined by the kind of excess that results from an overachieving army of animators and a perhaps equal number of comedy writers, all talented, all apparently well-coordinated, but ultimately in the service of some of the most forgettable blockbuster movies in the history of blockbuster movies.
Not that they’re not fun, at times lovely to look at, well-constructed, and funny, and Puss in Boots is no exception. Originally a conceptual offshoot of Shrek 2, the movie awkwardly tries to incorporate the defining theme of its parent series, a running spoof of children’s favorites (from Mother Goose stories to Disney animation), all within the bounds of a Zorro-like adventure story. It’s lively, filled with non-stop “ideas”; cat lovers, in particular, will appreciate the fact that many of the jokes and sound effects are there only for them to recognize and truly appreciate. (As someone who grew up with three cats, the scene where Puss chases a flashlight spot had me going for about three full minutes.)
For all the fuss, it dissolves almost immediately upon contact. The adventure Puss and his friends embark on seems bargain-value, like something out of the Rango video game, and the movie hits a studio nadir when they resort to the “characters talking in high-pitched voices” gag that even the writers of 30 Rock would have rejected out of pride. In terms of material quality, Puss in Boots is as handsome as any animated movie you can name, but it doesn’t even have the slick, narrative efficiency of one of the Kung Fu Panda movies, nor the go-for-broke insanity that Madagascar managed to get away with. Sure, kids will love it, and sure, adults won’t be gnawing their legs off, but for a film that began life as a straight-to-video trifle, DreamWorks did a good job upgrading the tech, but they forgot about everything else.