The orange-striped tomcat known as Puss is one of the most memorable characters of the animated "Shrek" franchise and surely the one who most deserves his own spinoff. Thanks to the rumbling voice and guacamole-thick accent of Antonio Banderas, Puss is part sexy Zorro and part bumbling Clouseau, a caricature of the preening Latin lover and of masculinity in general. If only his new star vehicle, "Puss in Boots," did this charming cat justice.

"Puss in Boots" provides its hero an origin story, though a rather muddled one. It places Puss in what looks like early California (tumbleweeds, Spanish missions), yet populates his boyhood orphanage with characters like Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). Cat and egg grow up as brothers until Humpty turns criminal, but they later reunite to raid a giant's castle for golden eggs. Along for the heist is Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), who is exactly what you'd expect: sexy, skilled and still vulnerable.

The laughs come from the one-liners ("That's a lot of heel for a guy," Kitty says of Puss' footwear) and the winking details (Puss tiptoeing away from last night's purring conquest), but the bigger picture suffers. The story zigzags aimlessly, and its trollish villains, Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris), feel lazily drawn. Director Chris Miller ("Shrek the Third") goes for a mix of fairy tale and spaghetti Western, but the result is a visual and tonal jumble.

"Puss in Boots" shares something else with the "Shrek" movies: stiff, unattractive computer animation. The animals move awkwardly, the humans look robotic, and there's something troubling about Humpty's semirealistic face (and his ultimate fate). If animated fictional cats had agents, Puss might want to get a new one.

PLOT The origin story of Shrek's swashbuckling feline friend RATING PG (slightly raunchy humor)

CAST Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis


PLAYING AT Area theaters, some in 3-D and IMAX

BOTTOM LINE Awkward animation, unmemorable characters and only a handful of good jokes. The charming Puss deserves a better star vehicle than this.

Back story: Banderas is a big pussy cat


"What a character!" Antonio Banderas enthuses about his titular role in "Puss in Boots." "He has honor, loyalty, bravery. But he is manipulative, I think. He appeals to members of the audience who love little kitty cats. He uses his big cat eyes. When I manipulate, I use other things.

"I liked playing him in 'Shrek,' liked what they did with him, he adds. "But now that we learn more about him, he is even more fun. A lover-killer. Yes, he is grand."

Banderas says the movie plays as funny as it does because of choices made years -- and many "Shrek" movies -- ago.

"Giving him a body that does not fit my voice, that makes this work," Banderas says. "It's almost like Puss in Boots never looked at himself in the mirror. He doesn't see how small he is. He barely knows he is a cat. That creates comedy, when a character that size has his confidence, it's funny."

Co-star Salma Hayek calls Banderas "the purrrrrrfect Puss. You know, he's very self-confident, Antonio. And so is Puss. You totally believe him as the character because of that."

-- Orlando Sentinel

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