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Years before Puss (Antonio Banderas) met Shrek, Donkey and Fiona, he had his own solo adventure with criminal mastermind Humpty A. Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and street-savvy cat thief Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). While looking for a score Puss learns that the outlaw couple Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) have come into possession of Jack the Giant Killer’s mythical magic beans, beans that can lead him to a giant's castle, where he’ll find the golden goose and her magical golden eggs. While attempting to steal beans from the outlaws' hotel room, Puss is interrupted by Softpaws in disguise, and lead to an underground kitty criminal lair. Softpaws has allied herself with Humpty Dumpty, a talking egg and Puss' long-estranged childhood friend from the orphanage where they were both raised. Puss explains to Softpaws that he’s been an outlaw ever since he was betrayed by Humpty, who tricked Puss into assisting him in committing the dastardly crime. Despite their differences, Humpty and Softpaws convince Puss to join them in finding the beans and retrieving the golden eggs.

Puss in Boots
I am not very fond of the Shrek film series, and still haven’t gotten to a point where I trust DreamWorks Animation despite a run of genuinely good ( Monsters Vs. Aliens, Megamind), even great films ( Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon) over the last few years, so it was very, very difficult to develop any interest in Puss in Boots, even after the original, smaller scale concept was scrapped and Guillermo del Toro signed on as an executive producer (del Toro and his long-time cinematographic collaborator Guillermo Navarro have been regularly employed as producers and visual consultants on DreamWorks Animation’s films since Megamind). Several months later, I’m more than happy to announce I’m wrong about yet another 2011 DreamWorks Animation release. It’s not as revelatory as Kung Fu Panda 2 (which I keep thinking about, and keep reevaluating for the better), but Puss in Boots is more than just a minor diversion, it might very well be the best thing to carry the Shrek brand. At the very least, I imagine it aging more gracefully than the original Shrek thanks to its incredibly rich visuals and sense of theatrical grandeur. From the first frame its clear that Puss in Boots is going to be a positively pulchritudinous motion picture experience, and I’m afraid I have to admit this alone would’ve been enough for me to enjoy the experience more than any previous films in the Shrek cannon.

Equally satisfying, however, is the fact that despite being an obvious part of the Shrek universe, Puss in Boots doesn’t feel too much like a Shrek spin-off, and can very easily stand alone. It seems the producers knew a fresh approach was ideal, because despite re-using Shrek 3 director Chris Miller (boo!), the credited writing staff is made up of two comic book notables, Brian Lynch and Tom Wheeler, who are entirely new to the franchise, and in Wheeler’s case, entirely new to feature screenwriting (Lynch was a writer on 2011’s Hop). The fractured fairy tale motifs still apply, but this is a more vibrant world, a more imaginative narrative, and, perhaps most importantly, an adventure story, not a through and through satire. The story isn’t entirely predictable either, which is a pleasant surprise for a prequel/pseudo-fifth film in a series, and the major characters are crafted with dimension and humanity, despite generally being traditional western trope-fillers. The writers use the prequel structure to their advantage, and aren’t afraid to get a little dark and dramatic, without going all grim and gritty. Knowing where Puss will land by the time he meets Shrek adds an air of melancholy to what could’ve been overwhelmingly cutesy. The Shrek-isms aren’t entirely eradicated. There are dozens of cheap physical gags, lame double entendres, and pop culture-isms. Some of these stick the landing, and elicit a solid giggle (the ‘oooooo’ cat, for instance), but overall the tone of the comedy is more subtle and mature (like, actually mature, not ‘adult’ in terms of sexual humour or fart jokes) playing to the characters and the situations over the easy laugh. Strangely enough, though, I found myself appreciating the laziest jokes of them all – the cute cat jokes. I guess cat people are easy marks.

Puss in Boots
Besides being generally stunning to look at, the animation here is particularly elaborate, and an effective mix of the cartoony and realistic style DreamWorks has struggled with since the original Shrek. The animals and Humpty are particularly expressive without betraying their ‘reality’ (however real anthropomorphic cats and eggs can be), while the human character animation veers into uncanny valley territory thanks to technological advances made over the last decade. The Shrek series has always had dreadfully dull human character designs, and these lean too far towards reality, with the exception of occasional grotesques like Jack and Jill, who look like extreme Sergio Leone rejects (in a good way). The action animation isn’t quite as intricate as that of Kung Fu Panda 2, but features real physical weight and impact, and the breathless scope of the action is comparable to live action swashbucklers. In the end the set piece to set piece structure reveals a somewhat sloppy storytelling style, and the spectacular scale is somewhat dulled by the fact that the action tends to slow the narrative momentum, but while in the throes of the spectacle it’s difficult to care too much.

Puss in Boots

Video


I’m not a fan of the whole 3D resurgence on the whole, but this particular motion picture is so graphically intense I assume it worked quite well for the format. Generally speaking, however, this non-3D, 1080p Blu-ray transfer is quite spectacular. Some might even say down right stunning. The sheer quantity of detail, texture and patterns is at times positively overwhelming. Every cat is pettably coated in millions of strands of fur, every wooden surface is craggy with potential splinters, every stitch in every article of clothing is so crystalline one fears then catching on wayward claws, and the roughness of every rock is so palpable your palms will ache. Then there’s the frosting known as dust, which is constantly fluttering through light beams, and caking every surface. The integration of characters and backgrounds is wonderfully natural without sacrificing the sharp separation of elements. Everything interacts naturally, while colour and lighting schemes keep the busy frame from turning muddy. The palette shows Guillermo del Toro’s influence in golds and blue highlights, but the overall colour timing is relatively eclectic. Reds are rich, greens are lush, and blends are incredibly smooth and graceful without even a hint of low-level noise or banding. The neon green of the magic beans and golden glow of the eggs pop with special intensity.

Audio


Once again DreamWorks Animation opts for a Dolby TrueHD track over the more commonly utilized DTS-HD Master Audio. Though both are technically uncompressed, I continue to find myself cranking the volume while listening to TrueHD tracks. This 7.1 track is no exception, but once I found a satisfying volume level I found it very difficult to complain about anything else. Occasionally dialogue is lost in this consistently busy mix, but generally speaking the intricacies, both subtle and extreme, are sharply represented. The first really large and intense surround sound bit is the epic dance-off/sword fight, which fills out every channel with instrumentation, percussion, and swishing, clanging swords. Later a horse cart chase gives way to heavy directional influence and plenty of punchy bass. The Golden Goose sounds every bit as fearsome as any of the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and her destructive final act ‘rampage’ is every bit as aurally bombastic as a Godzilla attack. Henry Jackman’s musical score is a constant aural element, and has a powerful narrative drive, both underscoring and punctuating the thrust of the action.

Puss in Boots

Extras


There is no commentary track this time around, but DreamWorks continues its tradition of including Animator’s Corner picture-in-picture option, and a pop-up trivia track. Since the latest firmware upgrade my player has had issues with playing the audio on some PiP options, so I merely glanced at the Animator’s Corner stuff without audio support, where I saw plenty of cast and crew interviews, production illustrations, storyboard comparisons, incomplete animation, and behind the scenes footage. I’m sure there’s a lot to learn here, and regret not getting the whole experience. The trivia track features some tasty factoids concerning the production process, but isn’t quite a valuable stand-in for an old-fashion commentary track.

From here we move on to Puss in Boots: The Three Diablos (13:10, HD), a brand new animated short that continues the pre- Shrek adventures of the title character. Here Puss is hired by a queen to find her missing crown jewel. This brings him to meet the ‘Three Diablos’, three adorable and evil kittens that leave him for dead in the desert. This is a cute and entertaining short that doesn’t overstay its welcome or sully the good will of the film itself. Also under the Blu-ray exclusive extras is A DreamWorks Fairytale, a sort of digital Mad Libs game, and Puss’ Paw Pouncing Challenge, a sort of dopey game where you use your player’s remote to move a paw target and capture light beams.

The rest of the extras are also available with the DVD release, including Purr-fect Pairing: The Voices Behind the Legend (9:20, HD), a behind the scenes featuerette revolving around the voice cast, three deleted scenes with producer introductions (7:30, HD), Kitten to Cat (12:00, HD), a general EPK presentation with the cast and crew, Glitter Box Dance-Off (5:00, HD), a look at the dance choreography, Klepto Kitty (3:40, HD), the true story of a house cat that stole various items from his neighbours, Kitty Keyboard, an interactive music game, a series of digital fairytale pop-up books, Kitty Strikes Again ‘find the difference’ game, another World of DreamWorks Animation submenu feature links to ads for their other films, and trailers.

Puss in Boots

Overall


So twice now in 2011 DreamWorks Animation has impressed me with spin-off/sequels I’d initially written off as superfluous. Puss in Boots has its problems, but is a gorgeous and dramatically engaging film despite its occasionally fluffy nature. It will also make a fantastic double feature with 2011’s best animated feature, Rango. Both are character-driven, spaghetti western inspired action spectacles that treat their audiences with respect while wowing them visually. This 2D Blu-ray release looks absolutely perfect, to the point that I’m not sure it’s possible for anything to look better, and the soundtrack, despite a few minor problems with volume levels, is generally spectacular as well. The most substantial extra, the PiP Animator’s Corner option, did not work appropriately for me, but I get the impression it will satisfy the film’s fans’ curiosities.

* Note: The images on this page don't represent the Blu-ray image quality.


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