'Puss in Boots'

This "Shrek" spinoff from DreamWorks Animation, featuring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek as cats, showcases Hollywood's best-yet 3D effort.

At the very least a relief from the past couple of entries in the Shrek series that spawned it, Puss in Boots is a perfectly diverting romp that happens to showcase some of the best 3D work yet in a mainstream animated feature. Colorful, clever enough, free of cloying showbiz "in" jokes, action-packed without being ridiculous about it and even well-choreographed, this latest DreamWorks Animation offering moves Antonio Banderas' dashing little kitty center stage in an entertaining way that points to strong, if not blockbuster, box-office results in all markets (particularly Spanish-speaking territories).

In a year that has seen the most striking 3D achievements created by two veteran German filmmakers -- Wim Wenders with Pina and Werner Herzog with Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- Puss is about as good as Hollywood animators have gotten thus far in visualizing a film from a three-dimensional point of view. In the assorted chases, sword fights, dance interludes, ascents into the clouds, perilous treks through forests and jungles and even more conventional dialogue scenes, it's clear the filmmakers have diligently applied themselves to conceiving the shots from dynamic, dramatic perspectives that would make use of 3D as a constructive tool, not just a gimmick. As a result, this is one film for which paying the extra-dimensional fare can be enthusiastically recommended.

Hovering throughout between passably entertaining and beguiling, Puss is set in a world that feels at least a few mountain ranges away from the Ruritanian kingdom inhabited by Shrek; it's a cross between a Mediterranean district in Spain and a Sergio Leone version of Mexico. At the outset, Puss is a wanted cat, a short orange critter with a feathered hat and large boots who is after some magic beans possessed by notorious outlaws Jack and Jill, who are so ugly and gross as to make Shrek look like a matinee idol (which, after all, he is).

Taking refuge in a neatly conceived cat cantina, the ever-bold Puss engages in a combative pas de deux with an agile leather-hooded feline who turns out to be a senorita -- Kitty Softpaws by name (Salma Hayek) -- a resourceful warrior whose tragic flaw is that she has been declawed. From their sexy dance moves and obvious affinities, there can be no doubt these two belong together.

Also on hand is the decidedly uncatty Humpty Dumpty. Beautifully and simply designed with an appealing cherubic face and voiced by Zach Galifianakis in a way that charms no matter how nefarious his ambitions, Humpty benefits from the imaginative leaps screenwriter Tom Wheeler makes with a character that began and ended life in a four-line fairy tale. As illustrated in a 10-minute flashback, Humpty and Puss were fellow outcasts at the local orphanage, best friends until the beret-wearing egghead betrayed his furry friend by tricking him into a botched bank-robbery scheme.

Since then, Humpty has been a bad egg, even a deviled one, in Puss' book. But the chance to liberate the luminous beans from such unworthies as Jack and Jill proves an irresistible lure to patching things up, resulting in an unexpected trip to 3D-enhanced heavens where the Golden Goose and her frequent gilded deposits are theirs for the taking. It then comes down to a battle between Humpty's instinct for ceaseless treacheries and Puss' need for redemption, which is played out against the comically surreal spectacle of a white goose the size of King Kong laying waste to a village while in desperate search of her fluffy gosling.

Director Chris Miller, in markedly better form than when he made 2007's Shrek the Third, gets it all done in 90 minutes flat and spends enough time on sparring matches between Puss and Kitty to generate what passes for sparks in a PG-rated animated film. This owes partly to the attractive conceptions of the characters themselves -- Puss is a self-deprecating, sometimes bumbling but ultimately dashing swordsman; Kitty is taunting, slinky and resourceful -- but also to their vigorous physicality as well as spirited and knowing vocal performances by Banderas and Hayek.

Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris are pretty funny as crusty old Jack and Jill, whose thoughts of settling down and having a baby together suggest scary prospects come sequel time. The dancing, overseen by Helios Dance Theater artistic director Laura Gorenstein Miller, is so spirited that it makes one ponder the usual difficulties of choreographing cartoon characters, and Henry Jackman's score is vigorous and agreeably multiflavored.

Release date: Oct. 28 (Paramount/DreamWorks Animation)
Voice cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris
Director: Chris Miller
Screenwriters: Tom Wheeler, story by Brian Lynch, Will Davies and Tom Wheeler
Producers: Joe M. Aguilar, Latifa Ouaou
Editor: Eric Dapkewicz
Music: Henry Jackman
Rated PG, 90 minutes

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