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Puss in Boots - Zach Galifianakis, Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas
Puss in Boots - Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) find more than they expected at the top of the beanstalk ©2011 DreamWorks Animation

Rango remains the smartest and strangest big studio animated movie of the year, but the similarly “weird western” themed Puss in Boots may have it beat in the fun-for-the-whole-family department. Antonio Banderas is el purrfecto as the voice of the fabled feline, who pounces from the Shrek franchise into his own friskily fantastic first feature.

Although the Zorro-like antihero’s nicknames include the Ginger Hitman, El Gato Diablo and even Chupacabra, it turns out that Puss was suckered into an early encounter with crime. An extended flashback reveals that Puss was raised in an orphanage, where he was lured into various forms of misbehavior by the inventive but bitter Humpty Alexander Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis).

Puss resolves to be good after saving an old woman from a charging bull, at which point he is awarded his famous boots. “Wear them as a symbol of honor and justice,” he is told by his beloved surrogate mother Imelda (Constance Marie). But after Humpty deceives him into helping rob a bank, Puss flees in shame.

Years later, Humpty reappears and pleads for forgiveness, suggesting they team up to steal three legendary magic beans. Puss tries to resist, but the chance to repay his hometown with eggs from the golden goose is irresistible. So is Humpty’s alluring accomplice, the female feline Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek).

Puss in Boots - Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton
Jill (Amy Sedaris) and Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) don’t give up their magic beans without a fight © 2011 DreamWorks Animation

The beans’ current owners are Mr and Mrs Jack and Jill, a pair of oversized bullies voiced by Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton. They drive a wagon pulled by a team of red-eyed warthogs, and Jack hasn’t been quite right in the head since falling down a certain hill.

Before undertaking their mission, Puss and Kitty engage in an enjoyably energetic and sometimes gravity-defying “dance fight” in a club full of instrument-playing cats. Insulted when Kitty does the “Litter Box” — pretending to kick dirt with her rear paws — Puss retaliates with a laugh-out-loud funny “Butt Scoot” that will appeal to sophomoric minds from eight to 80. The shocked reaction one observer gives their fancy footwork and flirting is equally hilarious, and somehow gets even funnier each time he pops up later.

The movie’s CGI animation is gorgeous, especially during a breathtaking sequence in which Puss, Humpty and Kitty ride a rapidly growing beanstalk into the stratosphere. A Maxfield Parrish-style castle with a cloud waterfall could be a storybook postcard, and a run-through-the-jungle scene is as convincing as anything in Avatar.

Directed by Chris Miller, the movie is good at sticking to story instead of schtick. The wall-to-wall pop culture references that were a hallmark of the Shrek movies are missing here, and there are no classic-rock singalongs. The only joke in the Tom Wheeler screenplay that might be considered inappropriately edgy occurs when Puss explains having a container of catnip on his person by saying it’s “for my glaucoma.”

Banderas is so charming as the amusingly self-confident Puss that it’s hard to remember a time when the character wasn’t automatically assumed to be a Latin lover with a liking for la leche. (In the original 17th-century Mother Goose fairy tale, the feline in the fancy footwear was French.) In this movie and its Shrek predecessors, Banderas is so completely right for the role that it’s now impossible to think of the character being voiced by anyone else.

Four paws up!

[Rating: 4 stars]

Puss in Boots gets its theatrical release October 28, 2011