Say this for Puss In Boots, DreamWorks’ latest attempt to wring more money from the Shrek franchise: It does 3-D right. It feels like the camera is always in motion, zooming up the strings of a guitar, whizzing across a desert plain, or ducking behind a character’s head to adopt a dramatic visual perspective. The CGI film has a great sense of depth and detail in its spaces, and it explores its world with bold dynamism. Viewers get to feel like daredevil hummingbirds, darting from one plane of action to the next with reckless abandon, sussing out complicated, beautiful environments and diving in headfirst.
If only a similar depth were reflected in the plot or characters. Even for a Shrek spin-off, Puss In Boots is mighty thin gruel, based more in outsized emotion than actual narrative. What plot there is centers on the eponymous fairy-tale cat burglar’s attempts to steal some magic beans from Jack and Jill (a pair of thick-set, frowny villains voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris) for reasons that make little sense, at least until he teams up with his bean-obsessed estranged childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and gold-loving criminal minion Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). There’s a great deal of posturing and drama among all of them, both in flashbacks and in the present day, but none of it amounts to more than a handful of excuses for flashy setpieces where Puss and Kitty face off in a dance fight or confront Jack and Jill atop a racing boar-drawn cart, or the three protagonists zip skyward on a rapidly growing beanstalk.
Granted, the Shrek series has seen worse. Puss In Boots gets much of its mediocre comedy from kitty reaction shots and absurd juxtapositions of Puss’ tough-guy persona and his feline nature (as when he breaks character to lap up milk, chase a moving light source, or lick his privates). But it doesn’t rely on Shrek-esque referential comedy or meta-humor, and it largely steers clear of cheap shots and gross-out gags. The drama half of the equation is more difficult, given that it comes largely from Banderas’ and Hayek’s exaggerated Latin-lover personas and a series of betrayals and reversals so abrupt and half-assed, the script doesn’t even try to make them stick. Nonetheless, the characters react to every unsurprising turn as if they were dealing with earth-shattering shocks; it’s opera-sized emotion in reaction to kazoo music. As a sheer visual experience, Puss In Boots makes a great theme-park ride, a thrill-a-minute feast for the eyes and the semicircular canals. But while the settings are impressively multidimensional, the characters are flatter than old-school cel drawings.