1. I stopped watching the "Shrek" films after the first one. I hear the next three were fine, albeit providing diminishing returns, but the charm of the first film is not lost on me; the idea of a real live universe in which all our fairy tales are real beings with their own neuroses and frustrations is a clever one, one that obviously has spawned its fair share of permutations. But because I begged out after the first film -- the series appeared to be headed inexorably toward the same conventions that the first film so cleverly overturned -- I had no idea about the Puss In Boots character, who is apparently such a large part of the latter three films. The loss is obviously mine: I sort of love him now.
2. I'm not sure what I love the most. Is it that, when we first see him in "Puss In Boots," the launch of a franchise he can call his own, he is slinking out of the boudoir of a female kitten whose name he doesn't remember but makes sure to wink at on the way out? Is it that he saunters into bars and orders "leche" in a shot glass and then laps at it, as cats are wont to do? Is that sometimes he stops in the middle of a fight scene to chase a laser pointer? It's possible that I just love cats and was therefore giddy to see a swashbuckling feline involving in dashing derring-do. But it might be Antonio Banderas. I think it's gotta be him. He's the voice of Puss, and he's everything you want Banderas to be, everything he once was, everything he's too old to be again, in real life. He's charming, funny and completely believable in cat form. Was this character always like this? Was I always missing this? I need to go see those other "Shrek" movies now.
3. "Puss In Boots" is an origin story for the character, taking place before he shows up in the "Shrek" films, so I hope he's as fun in those as he is here. He was an abandoned kitty raised in an orphanage with his odd-duck best friend Humpty Dumpty (voiced, with considerable conviction, by Zach Galifianakis) who ended up falsely accused as a bank robber and exiled from his village. He then becomes the master thief/Latin lover Puss In Boots, before he runs into Humpty again (along with a saucy minx voiced by Salma Hayek) and there is an adventure involving magic beans, the golden goose and a couple of mean old coots named Jack and Jill, characters who have the good fortunate of being voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris. (Jack wants to have a child after their pillaging days are over, but Jill is worried about her figure.)
4. This is all done in splendid animation, in what's unquestionably the best use of 3D in an animated film I've seen. (Assuming you don't consider "Avatar" animated, and you might.) For once, we don't lose any of the color, and the movie was clearly conceived with 3D in mind, not just retrofitting it in. The film isn't as visually inventive as, say, "Rango" -- a film, with its Western imagery, it occasionally resembles -- but it does the trick, particularly during a giddy sequence when Puss and Humpty and the minx are shot into the clouds by an aggressively growing beanstalk. With a film like this, a spinoff of a franchise, the animation could have been workmanlike and plodding, but they put in the extra effort.
5. But the cat's what's fun about all this. Maybe the three "Shrek" films provided a handy guide of how to match Puss to Banderas' vocal performance, but it's a perfect match. This is the Banderas that he left Almodovar for Hollywood to become but never did. Sometimes I wonder if Robert Rodriguez did more harm to Banderas than good; Rodriguez just isn't disciplined enough a director to truly capture and display all of Banderas' charms. (Banderas shouldn't be holding machine guns; he should be holding a sword!) Even the Zorro films felt wrong and bloated. Banderas is getting older now, and giving subtler, more "mature" performances, and more power to him. But that smoldering, rambunctious Banderas is in the past ... except for this cat. I like this cat. I hope they make four more of these. Viva el gato!