Friday, November 04, 2011

Review: Puss in Boots

I just got back from seeing Puss in Boots at the cinema. It's a good movie, not a great movie, but fun for a couple of hours. The frustrating part is that half of the movie is an imaginative, even insightful interpretation of classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, but half of it is a bucket full of Hollywood clichés featuring cartoon physics, chase scenes, rivals who are romantically attracted to one another, and multiple gratuitous doublecrosses. Antonio Banderas is perfectly cast as Puss, Zach Galifianakis is great at Humpty Dumpty, and Selma Hayek is lackluster as Kitty Softpaws, although to be fair, Kitty Softpaws isn't much of a role.

The really good parts of the movie involve the reinterpretation of Humpty Dumpty as an orphan boy who never really fit in. A dreamer bullied by Little Boy Blue and other children in the orphanage, he grows up alienated and becomes a thief. Puss in Boots is his blood brother and partner -- until Puss gets a taste of a mother surrogate's approval and decides to go straight.

What happens is a series of doublecrosses, leading ultimately to the climax of the movie. No spoilers, but as Humpty *almost* pulls off the robbery of the San Ricardo Bank, only to have things go wrong, and his wagon crash, we are given an entirely different story about why "all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again." Humpty is broken on the inside, and although Puss is the protagonist, who is a fugitive from justice trying to clear his name, what really drives the story is Humpty's psychological development.

I don't usually use terms like 'psychological development' for a cartoon character, and I'm not saying that his is a masterpiece of mental movie-making, but you have to admit, having any psychological development at all in a fairy tale movie remake distinguishes it from almost every other movie made. Fairy tales and cartoons work by reducing their characters to a few keep features to deliver a simple morality tale--many of which are outmoded for today's world. Case in point: Belle's love redeems the Beast (See girls? Don't leave that abusive man! If you try hard enough, you can solve all his problems!)

The morality in Puss in Boots is classic fairy tale morality, but it's also a good contemporary lesson: be a good son to your mother. If you live in the way your mother approves, your community will approve to and you will be their hero. If you disappoint your mother, you've definitely done something wrong and will come to a bad end. Humpty Dumpty is the Bad Son, and Puss in Boots is the Good Son who goes astray, but who is always trying to return to what he knows is right.

Along with the updated yet timeless fairy tales, there's also contemporary humor and plenty of Hollywood clichés. Although we are in a land of magic, reality asserts itself from time to time, as when Humpty's golden egg disguise chafes and wedges up (his inventions always work, but they don't work well). This is juvenile humor to be appreciated by those under the age of 10 (Rugrats has made a trope out of babies pulling at their wedged diapers), but there's adult humor that will pass completely over the kids' heads too. For example, when Puss is busted for a crime he didn't commit, the jailer inventories his personal possessions, "One hat, one belt, two boots, and one bottle of catnip." The guard glares at him, but Puss looks sheepish and says, "It's for my glaucoma." Sometimes the humor comes from taking the fairy tales to their logical extreme. I won't identify the guardian of the goose that lays the golden egg; suffice to say, it fits, it's funny, and it's a real menace to the heroes.

If I were a wizard with video editing, I'd be tempted to go through the movie and cut out all the Hollywood clichés, leaving a movie that is much shorter and much better. Magical bean stalk as paranormal tornado? We can snip that right out and nobody will care. The egregious and gratuitous final doublecross in which it turns out that just about everybody is in cahoots with Humpty Dumpty? Sigh. That's so Hollywood. Why in the hell would Jack and Jill team up with Humpty anyhow? Okay, that's a spoiler, but it's a stupid plot twist so it doesn't deserve to be protected.

There's a real danger when remaking fairy tales; updating them tends to destroy their charm. Being faithful to the spirit of the fairy tale while finding a way to make it new is much more difficult than most people realize. Hence the descent into special effects wizardry, multiple chase scenes, and characterizations that make no sense. That's why the reinterpretation of Humpty as the loner who's broken inside works so well. As for Puss, he's given slightly more depth than the usual swashbuckling hero by making him love his mother and want to win her approval. Over all, Puss in Boots works on several levels, but that only makes the parts where it falls down more obvious and more frustrating. Puss in Boots could have been a great movie, but it settled for being merely good.

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