by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Before we get started this week, and I have to get all mildly irritated at wasted potential, let’s briefly address this week’s news. As I have touched on multiple times throughout this series, most specifically in the Joseph: King Of Dreams and Bee Movie pieces, DreamWorks Animation today is not in a good spot, like, at all. Their films have been significantly underperforming, the studio has been losing money, and certain films – most specifically B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations – have been in development hell for years. Their attempts to find a buyer have failed, primarily because Jeffrey Katzenberg is trying to play what everyone knows is a crap hand like it’s a royal flush, and things look really grim.
Compounding that misery was this week’s onslaught of news. Following on from a recent string of major misfires, and in an attempt to stop haemorrhaging money, the company is cutting approximately 500 jobs, top execs have left the company, the number of feature films being released each year will now count two maximum with one always being a sequel of some kind, and they are closing PDI – the animation studio that has been with them since Day 1, that they acquired totally in 2000, and which just released major bomb Penguins of Madagascar – totally with most of its staff being laid off instead of reassigned. That loss of 500 jobs equates to almost 20% of the company’s current workforce.
Look, Katzenberg, if for some utterly ridiculous reason you are reading this, you need to change tactics and you need to step back. As we have seen (sort of) throughout this series, the Western feature-length animation landscape is not what it was back in 2005. It has new faces, new voices, resurgent faces, and a whole bunch of filmmakers who can deliver top-quality animation for well below $100 million – Despicable Me 2 cost $78 million, whilst The Lego Movie only cost $60 million – and who don’t ram multiple films down the audience’s throat every single year – even when they’re good, like they were for 2014, they still just burn out the general public.
You’re trying to run the company like it’s still 2005 when it really isn’t, and your studio and films are suffering for that. Katzenberg, you need to find a buyer, first of all. You need to get off of Wall Street, so that DreamWorks have that safety net of a major company again if everything does go wrong. Illumination are owned by Universal, Blue Sky by 20th Century Fox, Pixar by Disney; you need to join that group. Secondly… you need to step down. I’m sorry, but you do or, at least, step back. Don’t try and make a power play whilst selling the company, don’t stick around and continue to micromanage, just stop. You are the company’s own worst enemy at this moment in time, and it needs a new voice leading proceedings.
I know that it’s hard to let go of something you’ve helped build, but there is a point where you just have to admit that you are not the right man for the job anymore. This is one of those times. So sell the company, step back, and let somebody else take the reins for once. Otherwise I am terrified that we won’t be seeing DreamWorks Animation, at least in this recognisable sort of form, for much longer. OK, on with this week’s entry.
23] Puss In Boots (28th October 2011)
Budget: $130 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
So, let’s talk about that incest subtext, shall we!
Question: are Jack and Jill brother and sister, or just two non-blood related people of opposing genders? Not in Puss In Boots, we’ll get to that, I mean in the nursery rhyme. The rhyme itself has changed over the centuries, but at no point in any of its incarnations does it specify exactly whether the pair are siblings, married or just two people. A third verse makes reference to Jill having a mother, who whips her for laughing at Jack’s misfortune, but that’s as far as the specificity goes. As a child, I always saw them as brother and sister. I mean, the rhyme is so innocent and the nature of their relationship, to me, always seemed like that of siblings rather than friends or lovers or what have you.
Therefore, I grew up holding that belief, as I imagine a good majority of other people did. Hence why seventeen year-old me ended up sat in the cinema in abject horror as the Jack of Puss In Boots started talking in earnest to the film’s version of Jill about impregnating her with a baby. Because “our biological clocks are ticking.” Now, again, the nursery rhyme doesn’t specify, so you get that wiggle room, but neither does the film. They are mentioned as husband and wife, but they are never openly denied as brother and sister, and this is a problem.
See, the Shrek series up to this point has been pretty darn faithful when it comes to presenting fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters in their universe. They may gain sassy personalities or have that thing they’re known for doing twisted around for comedy – The Wolf, for example, is a crossdresser who just wishes to lay in other people’s beds and it’s funny because it’s a man dressed as a woman – but they are portrayed with the backstory (or unspoken backstory) that viewers know and accept, unless specifically stated otherwise. That’s why, even though it is never specifically stated so in the nursery rhyme so they do have that leeway, a good subset of the film’s older audience may be grossed out by the implication. Especially since DreamWorks still have that poor double-coding stigma attached to them; if they did intentionally start making incest references, would anybody here be surprised?
This also ends up being emblematic of the problems that face Puss In Boots. The first is how the baby desires are brought up, made a huge deal out of, and then promptly tossed off-screen and out of the film after its interest is lost – which is what ends up happening to Jack and Jill and, to somewhat of an extent, Kitty Softpaws. The second is because it’s a film that wants to find its own voice and do its own thing, hinting at true greatness constantly, but keeps being dragged down by the worst impulses and traits of the series that it’s spun-off from – having villains who are happily married and have humanising conversations about their domestic life is a great idea. Marrying it to nursery rhyme characters for no reason, ones with misconceptions surrounding them: not so much.
But let’s hold up for a minute. You may notice that I mentioned offhandedly a few paragraphs back about how I saw Puss In Boots in the cinema. That is information that runs contradictory to my constant notes that Kung Fu Panda was the moment that I decided to stop seeing DreamWorks films in the cinema. Well, Puss In Boots very much turned out to be the exception, brought on by a friend of mine at Sixth Form at the time having gotten free movie tickets she needed to burn and there being nothing else on that week. I ended up finding it incredibly boring, a nice distillation of all of the things I disliked about DreamWorks in one forgettable, only occasionally enraging package reminder to stop subjecting myself to their output already.
Of course, I was a different critic back then, one who wouldn’t fall headfirst back down the rabbit hole of animation until a good year later and one who, quite honestly, was probably wanting to dislike it. A second watch has made the stuff that doesn’t work stick out even sharper, but has also revealed the nugget of a genuinely great film fighting against everything that stands in its way to burst out and reveal itself – the film that the critics saw and showered with praise. Puss In Boots is a potentially brilliant film that just can’t stop lapsing into bad habits, like an addict on the road to recovery and with that same kind of “dammit, no! You can be better than this!” feeling attached to it. Fitting, really, since those are actually the arc words of the film itself.
For example, and as I’ve previously discussed in their respective articles, the Shrek sequels run on pop culture references and a sprinkling of mean-spiritedness. The characters go through the motions, but their bonds never feel sincere, instead being obviously controlled by the almighty screenwriter from upon high. In short, there’s no heart. Puss In Boots, by contrast, is very character-driven. In addition to those little exchanges between Jack and Jill, the film’s central emotional core pivots on Puss and Humpty Alexander Dumpty. There’s even an 11 minute stretch of the film dedicated to the flashback that sets up and explains the duo’s dynamic, recognising that hard work like that will pay off down the line.
And, for a good half an hour, it does. Puss and Humpty swap banter, re-affirm their bond, de-frost in the former’s case, and generally just strike up a good rapport with one another, which is good since most of the movie consists of those two and Kitty Softpaws. Speaking of, although she really doesn’t get much to do – no surprise for a DreamWorks Animation joint by this point, I know – she still brings a fun dynamic to the cast. She brings out the really entertaining Casanova side of Puss, and I really like the fact that she’s actually rather soft personality-wise naturally, with her harder and more anger-filled moments coming from genuine reasons to be so rather than just being pissed all the time until the film decides it’s time for her to fall head over heels for Puss.
So the central trio are extremely well-drawn and likeable with good chemistry and a nice sense of heart. Shame it’s all pissed away when Humpty is revealed to be the villain who had been the mastermind behind everything from the start in an overly-elaborate revenge scheme on both Puss and the town of San Ricardo. It’s one of those special kind of twists where it’s blindingly obvious and yet incredibly stupid and nonsensical at the same time. The film telegraphs the twist way too early and obviously – really exaggerated shifty eyes, silent mouthing, clearly fake smiles – in a way that contradicts Zach Galifianakis’ sincere vocal performance, it screws up the character arc majorly – especially since it promptly forgets about it barely 10 minutes later in order to do the redemption finale – and it reduces the reveal flashbacks themselves to a lame gag, undercutting whatever power the twist should have.
It was apparently executive producer Guillermo del Toro – in his first major work on a DreamWorks film since coming aboard as a Creative Consultant for the company in 2010 – who decided that Humpty should redeem himself at the end with the self-sacrifice, which is a smart move, the film has put way too much time and effort into the relationship between Humpty and Puss to just throw it away for third act explosions. But it also throws into sharp relief just how pointless the betrayal itself is, especially since the film could still have this exact same finale without it!
Look, I’ll fix it for you right now. Instead of the betrayal, have the trio arrive at San Ricardo looking to give back to the town, only to have them reject and shun Humpty due to the whole “once a bad egg, always a bad egg” type of stigma. Let that throw Humpty into a fit of jealous rage and cause a falling out between Puss and himself, with Humpty planning on skipping town with the Golden Goose when no-one’s looking. When its mother shows up, then have Humpty decide to leave San Ricardo to burn, only to experience a moral panic just as he’s about to flee. Puss then turns up, they talk, he convinces Humpty to help save the town as just because he was bad before, and the town still thinks he is, doesn’t mean he needs to still be, and then the finale progresses as before. You then get to hit the same beats and tackle the same themes without having that stupid pace-ruining, near-character-derailing betrayal! It was so easy to avoid!
As, in fact, are a lot of the film’s problems. As mentioned earlier, this is a film that very much is striving to find its own voice, to set itself apart from its parent series as something different and new. So the tone is that of a swashbuckling adventure movie with a distinctly Spanish feel and location. Again, there are times when it works very well, the trip and heist from the giant’s castle is a particular highlight, and the emphasis on drama, and often melodrama, works to the film’s advantage, preventing itself from undercutting everything like Shrek ended up doing – although it still chooses to do so enough times to get annoying; the exit from Puss’ flashback finds Kitty having been sent to sleep by it.
The problem is that it doesn’t manage to commit to that voice for the entire film. Just when it settles into its groove, engages the more sceptical viewer and threatens to push through into greatness, it falls back on old, bad DreamWorks and Shrek habits. There’s the aforementioned accidental incest stuff, but then the gross and utterly inexcusable prison rape gag rears its head to piss away any and all good will the film had accumulated thus far. Later on, in the space of two minutes of one another, we get jokes about Puss being a drug addict – because no action-comedy tells the audience that we’re supposed to believe the character’s protestations that film’s equivalent of marijuana is for “medicinal purposes” – and masturbation. There’s a Fight Club reference that’s only a decade late to the “That Joke Is No Longer Funny” party.
Puss In Boots is a film that wants to be its own thing, but either can’t break free of or keeps retreating into, for safety, the Shrek formula and the Shrek voice, like it’s worried that the audience won’t turn up unless it hits all of those necessary beats when required – hence why Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill are, well, Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill. It’s a film with a Shrek cast member, if nursery rhyme or fairy tale characters don’t show up, people might not turn up! Despite the fact that the film is set in Spain, and so the world of the film gets all muddied with the world of Shrek. Yes, the film isn’t supposed to overlap with Shrek, but that leads to the question of why this needs to be Puss In Boots. Why not just come up with some totally original characters and worlds? Job’s already half-done.
In fact, flow-breaking side-bar real quick: this is definitely the ugliest-looking of the Shrek-related films that I have seen, almost by design. It’s a film that has the majority of its side cast as humans and, as we have already discovered in three prior Shrek sequels, humans do not look good or appealing when put through the Shrek art-style, which is what Puss In Boots subscribes to albeit with more dirt and grime. Therefore, the film attempts to steer into the skid, purposefully adding excess facial hair with large amounts of detail, extending proportions, bending things out of shape and such. I get what it’s going for, but I really don’t think it works, frequently and accidentally crossing the line from “creepily off-putting” to “just plain ugly to look at”, especially with Jack and Jill. Animation itself is fine, although boarding is a major step down from prior DreamWorks films, but the design is what lets it down.
Anyways, I get the feeling that the reason why DreamWorks didn’t go the whole hog and come up with original casts and worlds and such is because everybody at the company was still worried and hurting over the failure of The Road To El Dorado from 2000. Puss In Boots actually, in its best moments, strongly recalls that much better movie. See for all its faults, The Road To El Dorado never doubted what it wanted to be. Never tried to awkwardly take turns appeasing kids and adults separately with easy cat jokes for the kids and one night stand gags for the adults. Never panicked and zigged instead of zagging because it felt its plot was being too predictable.
Puss In Boots, however, is a film caught between two worlds and not confident enough in its own abilities to just leap off into the good one. And since The Road To El Dorado exists, it ends up coming off as a poorer attempt to turn that into box office gold, this time. El Dorado just does everything better: the central dynamic is more convincing, the dialogue is better, it doesn’t sacrifice its emotional heft at the altar of “argh, the kids might be bored by this seriousness”, it looks nicer, it’s more fun, and its ultimately tertiary female lead is better – both Kitty and Chel serve the purpose of “headstrong love interests who wander in and out of the film as required” but Chel ends up having the bigger impact on the film’s plot and makes a bigger mark for me.
But, hey, the film continued DreamWorks’ hot streak with the critics and won back a significant portion of the disillusioned Shrek fan-base. Not so much at the domestic box office, mind. Continuing a downward spiral that, quite honestly, throws the current box office woes into sharper relief, Puss In Boots’ no. 1 debut was the lowest for a DreamWorks Animation film since Flushed Away – $34 million dead. It would repeat at the top the next week, holding extremely strongly in all fairness, before falling off in the weeks following as Happy Feet Too, The Muppets, and Twilight 4 Part 1 leeched away its screens. Puss would close at just under $150 million domestic. That’s not half bad, honestly, but it’s also the lowest for any Shrek-related film yet released, and you just know that DreamWorks, Katzenberg, and shareholders will have wanted and expected more. Least it still earned a good $400 mil overseas, putting the thing nicely over the profit line, unlike two films that we will come to in due time.
A sequel to this film is supposed to be still coming at some point. They’ve been promising it for years, but it’s never really gotten further than those promises that it’s coming eventually. With that creative re-shuffling and the scaling back of their feature film output going on at DreamWorks, it seems less and less likely that it’s ever going to happen, and I honestly find that a shame. We already know that the Shrek series and I don’t get along and Puss In Boots’ worst moments are when it relapses into that voice. It’s a film that is always seemingly on the verge of becoming its own thing and being hugely entertaining whilst doing so, but keeps falling back into those old habits. A sequel could be the confidence boost it needs to push forward on that original voice, but I guess, at this rate, we’ll never find out.
Still, least it’s a better final note for the Shrek series than Shrek Forever After or, god forbid, Shrek The Third! That’s always a plus!
After putting out their masterpiece in the shape of Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss In Boots marked a return to the kind of fun, lightweight animated movies that, nonetheless, attempt to have their own voice that DreamWorks were known for. The box office repaid them in kind and the critics seemed to be more accepting of this kind of film than before. Things were looking a little shaky at the box office, but everything was mostly continuing to be smooth sailing. Not to mention how having a growing collection of beloved live-action auteurs in their pocket – Roger Deakins and now del Toro – was doing wonders for their storytelling.
Next week, we look at a film that is unexpectedly co-scripted by one such auteur. The result finally pushed its once-maligned series into critical acceptance and was rewarded with major box office returns. The auteur is Noah Baumbach, and the film is Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. Da-da-dada-da-da-AFRO CIRCUS.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
Callum Petch owns the money, he controls the witness. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!