I must admit I was a bit wary of Puss in Boots Dreamworks Animation’s spin-off of its blockbuster Shrek franchise. After its sparkling 2001 debut the Shrek saga suffered a steady decline in quality over subsequent installments. While its final entry 2010’s Shrek Forever After improved slightly over its decidedly mediocre predecessor but it hardly whetted my appetite for Puss in Boots which to my eyes at least appeared little more than a transparent attempt to further milk a barren brand.
Thankfully I was wrong. Puss in Boots is a surprising delight a lively and buoyant romp that all but ignores the stale franchise that spawned it. When we meet him in the film the dashing rogue Puss (Antonio Banderas) is already an infamous outlaw. In search of his next score he is lured by a beguiling rival Kitty Softclaws (Salma Hayek) into an ambitious and risky scheme orchestrated by his former childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) to steal magic beans from the murderous bandits Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris).
The story is set in the fictional town of San Ricardo a world far removed from Shrek’s Far Far Away. In fact you’d be hard-pressed to find any Shrek references whatsoever in the film. The animation style is similar by necessity but otherwise Puss in Boots is very much its own animal: briskly paced gorgeously animated and refreshingly devoid of the gratuitous pop-culture references and crude humor that marked the decline of its forebear. Story is sacrificed for spectacle but that doesn’t detract from the film’s charm much of the credit for which is owed to Banderas' vibrant voice work.
If animals could indeed view their surroundings intellectually and talk to each other it’s entirely possible they’d discuss how screwed up human beings are especially in the ridiculous way we waste food. But hey to RJ (Bruce Willis) a wily raccoon what we throw away today becomes lunch tomorrow. He tries to impart some of this wisdom to his newfound friends--a motley crew lead by Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling)--after they wake up after a long winter’s nap and discover most of their natural habitat has been turned into a housing development separated by a very tall hedge. Yep these woodsy folk are sure in for an eye-opening adventure as the manipulative RJ convinces the gang to start collecting boxes of cheese doodles Girl Scout cookies and marshmallows telling them there is little to fear and everything to gain from their over-indulgent new neighbors. Now if they can only get rid of that cat... If you’re an actor these days the chances to play a serious Oscar-worthy role are just as great as playing a squirrel. Or a hedgehog. Or a guy called the Verminator. Over the Hedge has a fine slate of voices starting with Willis as RJ the raconteur raccoon whose pretty savvy to the ways of the paved and pre-packaged world of suburbia. Shandling is the heart of the film as the mild-mannered Verne who just wants to take care of his little woodland family. They include a couple of married-with-kids hedgehogs (pitch perfect Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara); a hyperactive but tender-hearted squirrel (a hilarious Steve Carell); an overdramatic possum (William Shatner playing it to the hilt) and his embarrassed teenage daughter (pop star Avril Lavigne); and a snarky skunk with attitude (Wanda Sykes who else?). As far as the humans Allison Janney voices a shrieking but vindictive homeowner while the Thomas Haden Church is said Verminator a fat balding but ruthless pest exterminator. What fun! Over the Hedge keeps to the spirit of the popular comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis on which the film is based. The strip focuses on the travails of friends RJ and Verne as they exploit the human world for their own personal gain while sardonically commenting on how messed up it is. Hedge sort of shows how these two might have met and is just a hoot from beginning to end. The images of woodland animal-meets-modern-day people are spot on: RJ’s spiel on how humans get food (“That’s the receptacle to get the food [a phone]...and that’s the tone when the food comes [the doorbell]”); SUVs (“Humans are slowly phasing out walking all together”); the skunk seducing the stupid cat (“I like your smell.”). The best is when Hammy the squirrel getting so hopped up on caffeinated soda the whole world comes to a stand still for him. Side-splitting stuff. Again success in animation comes when you stick with a simple story and create characters everyone can relate to. Plus hilarious dialogue. It’ll work every time.