Dashing hat with debonair feather? Check. Footwear made for walking? Check. Alluring Spanish accent? Double check.
The cat is back.
After supporting roles in three “Shrek” movies, the feisty feline Puss in Boots finally has a film of his own, and those who have cried out for animated justice will be saying “It’s about time.” A treat to experience visually (especially in lively 3-D) and verbally, “Puss in Boots” is a family film where the adventure and invention never flag and the tongue-in-cheek humor doesn’t linger far behind.
Naturally, Antonio Banderas returns as the cat who doesn’t lack for self-esteem, joined this time by an expert, idiosyncratic voice cast including Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris.
As written by Tom Wheeler (sharing story credit with Brian Lynch and Will Davies) and directed by Chris Miller, “Puss,” as is often the case with contemporary superhero movies, presents something of an origins tale, setting out to explain how the cat who walks like a man — but still laps up milk with his tongue — became the most feared of creatures.
Determined, in the “Shrek” tradition, to bring in as many movie and popular culture references as possible, “Puss” opens with a nod to the romantic exploits of James Bond and frequently channels the westerns of Sergio Leone, but its most pervasive influence is film noir.
In an inspired move, this film recasts “Puss’” protagonists as if they were genre luminaries having a hard-boiled adventure. Think of this Puss as being sired by Raymond Chandler with Mother Goose and you’ll begin to get the idea.
When we first meet Puss he’s on the run from the law, searching for a way to simultaneously clear his name and repay an old debt. Humans may chuckle when the cat casts a long shadow as he walks into a bar, but that laughter dies in their throats. As Puss himself puts it, “You do not want to make the cat angry.”
It’s in a bar that Puss hears about the exploits of the murderous outlaws Jack and Jill, enthusiastically voiced by Thornton and Sedaris. When they check into a hotel, ask about the continental breakfast and snarl, “Don’t even think of skimping on the baby muffins,” you’d best pay attention.
These two reprobates have gotten their hands on some genuine magic beans and clearly intend to use them to grow a beanstalk that will take them to the goose that lays the legendary golden eggs. Unless Puss gets his paws on them first.
But two can play this game, and Puss finds he has a rival for the beans in the attractive form of the gifted Kitty Softpaws (Hayek), a slick-fingered seductress with the best criminal hands in Spain.
In the best noir tradition, Kitty happens to be the cat’s paw, so to speak, of the great criminal mind of the age, Humpty Alexander Dumpty. Yes, it’s an egg, but as splendidly voiced by Galifianakis, an egg that is as glib and manipulative as “Chinatown’s” Noah Cross.
The egg, as it turns out, is also an old childhood friend of Puss, and what happened to them growing up in an orphanage in the sleepy village of San Ricardo is the key to what happens today. Is it true, as Puss grimly insists, that “the scars run too deep” for reconciliation, or does Humpty deserve a second chance to prove he is a good egg and not a rotten one?
Working this relationship out involves enough plot for a three-picture deal, and the film’s chases and adventures unwind almost nonstop with great visual style and flair.
Essential in keeping everything moving at a rapid clip is Henry Jackman’s driving score, which features Leone riffs as well as flamenco guitar. Some of the most entertaining moments are, of all things, sizzling dance duets between Puss and Kitty (choreographed by Laura Gorenstein Miller of L.A.'s Helios Dance Theater), which give “Dancing With the Stars” a whole new meaning.
Perhaps the most engaging thing about “Puss in Boots” is that it never takes itself too seriously. Even the DreamWorks Animation logo gets into the act, as the fishing line of the boy in the moon morphs into a crackling bullwhip. It’s that kind of a film.