DreamWorks' cunning casting of silky Spaniard Antonio Banderas as a swashbuckling cat pays off, brilliantly, in Puss in Boots, a star vehicle for the nursery-rhyme kitty from the Shrek movies.
Thanks to Banderas and his Corinthian-leather purr — and writers who know how to use it — Puss is the best animated film of 2011. This is no mere Shrek sequel. There is sex appeal in every syllable, swagger in every line. And even kids get the joke of a voice that sensual and grand coming out of a kitty so small.
"I am but a humble gato (cat) looking for his next meal," Puss insists. But that's after he has mentioned that, as a legendary lover and swordsman, "I am known by many names — The Ginger Hit Man, Chupacabra, Frisky Two Times." So we know better than to take this con artist, thief and seducer seriously.
His childhood pal Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) has a plan for stealing magic beans from the burly thugs Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris). If Puss can pull off the theft, there are riches at the top of the beanstalk that those beans will grow into.
"We go up the beanstalk outlaws; we come back legends!"
First, though, he has to get past a competitor: a cat-suited cat-burgling Kitty Soft-Paws (Salma Hayek). Before you can yell "cat fight!," they launch into an epic 3-D flamenco dance-off. Being cats, their moves include one that any dog or cat owner will recognize: the butt scootch.
"How dare you do the Litter Box to me!"
This quest will test Puss, and it might cost him his boots. But a gato has his principles, a code. They need cash.
Maybe the local church? "I do not steal from churches!" Maybe from the homeless kids? "I do not steal from orphans!"
Banderas vocally vamps this up in ways he never gets to do in live-action films. And the writers — Brian Lynch, David H. Steinberg, Tom Wheeler and Jon Zack — never forget how funny these words will be coming out of that voice inside that itty-bitty kitty cat.
A couple of dandy 3-D chase scenes suggest theme park rides to come, and the sight gags almost outnumber the verbal ones. In a flashback, Puss and Humpty remember the day they became "blood brothers" as kids — pricking their fingers and swapping blood ... and yellow egg yolk. Humpty's "plan" for climbing the beanstalk is written on a child's pop-up book.
Director Chris Miller (Shrek the Third) never lets this settle into the lazy Shrek music videos and pop-culture riffs. The comedy here comes from the characters, and the incongruity of that wondrous voice saying those dashing lines in the body of a small but not remotely "humble" gato.