PUSS IN BOOTS: The Cat Came Back
by Gene Ching
The time is right for Puss. There's a flood of fencers and fairytales now. A week before the premiere of PUSS IN BOOTS, another rehash of THE THREE MUSKETEERS opened. It's a cartoonish remake in 3D, starring Orlando Bloom and Milla Jojovich, with only passing references to the original work of Alexandre Dumas. This new version is blatant steam-punk PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN wannabe, which is redundant for Bloom who already has a well-establish role in that blockbuster franchise. Why does Hollywood feel the need to redo The Three Musketeers every few years? With dirigible ships and flame cannons, surely Dumas is spinning in his grave like Milla spins on her stunt wire. As we'll see, faithfulness to the original isn't prerequisite for fencing tales (or 'tales, in Puss's case), but that's another movie entirely. Back to Puss's premiere.
The same week Puss opens, two fairytale-based series debut on television: GRIMM on NBC, a police-procedural about investigating lycanthropic murders, and ONCE UPON A TIME on ABC, a spin on Disney's 2007 Amy Adam's vehicle ENCHANTED, where fairytale characters get trapped in the real world. Even on the other side of the Pacific, fairytale fencers reign supreme. Jet Li's latest film, THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (IT'S LOVE), a $30 million CGI 3D epic, had a very strong box office opening in Asia. Based on a beloved Chinese fairytale, THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (IT'S LOVE) shows that America isn't the only country that needs a little escape from reality right about now. With the world in such chaos, it couldn't be better for Puss. As the PUSS IN BOOTS ad line goes, "The time is meow."
Akin to the new THREE MUSKETEERS movie, Puss has come a long way from his origins. Puss was born in a seventeenth century French fairytale Le Chat Botté by Charles Perrault. That chat has little to do with the present Puss, beyond the boots. Akin to SHREK, which was very loosely based on the 1990 children's book Shrek! by William Steig, the book and film characters are quite different. Puss first appeared in the first sequel to SHREK, released in 2004, where he promptly stole the show. PUSS IN BOOTS, like BATMAN BEGINS , is an origins tale, rebooting the franchise with an entirely different perspective.
In the transition from print to celluloid, Puss underwent a nationality change. The original was French, so early depictions of Puss naturally gravitated towards that of a musketeer. Noted nineteenth-century artist Gustave Dore, best known for his spectacular etchings of Dante's Inferno, imagined Puss dressed like D'artangnan, with a plumed cavalier hat, a rapier and hanger, and, of course, knee-high boots. Puss in PUSS IN BOOTS adopts the same appearance. When Antonio Bandaras took on the role for the films, his strong Spanish accent had to be accommodated. Puss had to swap being a French Musketeer to that other famous rapier wielder, the Spanish swordsman Zorro. Coincidentally, Bandaras played Zorro twice: THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998) and THE LEGEND OF ZORRO (2005). Ironically, Zorro means "fox" in Spanish, not cat. More ironically, in the original story, Le Chat Botté, there's no mention of Puss carrying a sword or a hat. He just has boots.
Zorro stands among the trinity of the world's most popular and iconic celluloid characters. The other two are Dracula and Wong Fei Hung. There have been more films and television shows made about these three characters than any others. Dracula is very loosely based on the historic villain, Vlad the Impaler. Unquestionably, vampires are in vogue now too, and the horders of fangbanger fans are all the bastard spawn of Vlad. Wong Fei Hung is based on a real-life folk hero, a seminal figure in the kung fu world, although his story has been highly fictionalized in cinema. Zorro is entirely fictional, the product of a pulp writer from the '20s named Johnston McCulley. Some urban legend folk heroes of the time have been cited as possible inspiration for the character, but Zorro's creation, like Puss, arose from vivid imagination. Like Wong Fei Hung, Zorro bears the marks of a classic wuxia hero, only set in early 1800s California.
Ironically again, Zorro's signature bandana and mask weren't part of his original attire in literature. Those trappings were adopted after the Douglas Fairbanks film, The Mask of Zorro (1920). The Spanish gaucho hat came later. The gaucho hat has no plume. Puss's plumed cavalier hat is all musketeer, clearly an artifact of his French origin and Dore interpretation. Thus Puss is the feline fusion of the most iconic rapier fencers, Zorro and the Musketeers, the heroes of that elegant European sub-genre of martial arts movies, the swashbuckling fencing films. Fencing films are unique, mostly in the wake of the great Errol Flynn and the aforementioned Fairbanks. Their stylish fencing fight scenes remain unparalleled in other film fight choreography. Fencing is considered "physical chess," a martial art for gentlemen, and Flynn and Fairbanks epitomized grace in battle just as Gene Kelly (who coincidentally played D'Artagnan in a 1948 version) did on the dance floor.
Beyond Zorro and Musketeer flicks, notable fencing films include such works as SCARAMOUCHE (1952) which has a storyline like a classic kung fu film where an affront leads to martial training in secret and ultimately to revenge, to THE DUELLISTS (1977), which has some brilliantly gritty swordfights. And none can forget the fencing fairytale classic, THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987), which contained so many quotable lines that still echo in every Fencing Salle D'armes today. The film's hero, Wesley (played by Cary Elwes), adopted Fairbank's original Zorro bandana and mask costume.
Fairytale fencers bring us right back to Puss, who surely spent one of his nine lives in the supporting role for SHREK. Like the ogre that he was, Shrek was smothered by his own corpulence. The initial SHREK was released a decade ago and was a tent-pole franchise for Dreamworks. It fused names from Steig's original story with classic fairy tale creatures like Pinocchio and the Big Bad Wolf and nursery rhyme characters like the Gingerbread Man and the Three Blind Mice. SHREK 2 expanded the cast, introducing Prince Charming, the Fairy Godmother, the Frog Prince, Captain Hook, and, of course, Puss. SHREK THE THIRD (2007) focused on the princesses and a distracting foray into Arthurian legend. The final installment, SHREK EVER AFTER (2010), signaled the death knell of the series with a version of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). The film, although a critically-dismissed rehash, failed to keep consistency within the Shrek universe, a cardinal foul amongst fans; the main villain, Rumpelstiltskin, already appeared in the prior film looking completely different. Nevertheless, the film enjoyed box office success and at this writing holds the 40th slot in the roster of the top highest grossing films of all time according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. SHREK 2 and 3 did better.
PUSS IN BOOTS is also guilty of rehashing all of Puss's best shticks, from the sad kitty eyes to his dashing machismo and swordsmanship, but now it's all about Puss, so it's like these shticks are on steroids. Replacing Puss's bromance partner Donkey is a romantic rival, Kitty Softpaws, voiced by the ever voluptuous Salma Hayek. Another irony is that Puss will face off with Donkey in the box office as the week after Puss premieres, Eddie Murphy's new film, TOWER HEIST opens. This is the fifth celluloid collaboration for Bandaras and Hayek. In most animated films, actors voice their parts separately. In this case, the actors requested to work together to capitalize on their previous relationship and improvise. There's a comfortable chemistry between the two voice actors, perhaps too comfortable as Hayek comes off a tad understated, given her acting prowess. Nonetheless, Kitty provides a purr-fect counterpoint to Puss's puffed up braggadocio.
While still set in the fairytale universe, PUSS IN BOOTS smartly avoids getting muddled in too many characters. Puss is the lone survivor of the Shrek franchise, and there are only a few new main nursery rhyme characters like Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), and Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris). The plot revolves around another fairy tale, another Jack, the one with the beanstalk. This really opens up the international market for Puss. Shrek got bogged down in its fairytale culture. If you don't know Grimm, much of Shrek's cleverness is lost. Does a Chinese audience really get Snow White's Dopey tattoo? (Perhaps they will if Disney ever succeeds with its Snow White and the Seven Shaolin Monks project, but that's another subject.) Puss jumps out of this trap to land on his feet. Jack and Jill are hardly recognizable - their pail of water isn't relevant - so no humor is lost. The beanstalk tale is well explained to any na´ve viewer. Humpty-- Well, yes, Humpty is a bit weird, but he makes up for it by being funny and complex. Is he a good egg or a bad egg? Ultimately, it all comes down to the cats. Cat humor is cross-cultural. Ogres have layers, like onions and parfait, but cats are immediately understandable. Why is the Ohhh Cat funny? I don't know but I can't help but giggle when thinking about it.
PUSS IN BOOTS has great potential to be a global smash. There's an anonymous saying: "Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this." Fortified by Bandaras and Hayek's international appeal, uninhibited by cultural gaps and immersed in cute and funny cats, Puss's next life looks promising. So never mind Shrek. Feline fencing fu forever!
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