Saturday, October 29, 2011

Puss in Boots (Mexico, 1961)

As many of you know, there inevitably comes a time for every movie blogger when the big money comes calling and he or she must make the choice whether to sell out to Hollywood or continue along on his or her chosen path. Such a Faustian proposition was recently presented to my friend and colleague Tars Tarkas, and, well, you can see on which side of the debate he ultimately came down on. Not that I’m judging, mind you. You see, I too would love to get my hands on some of that sweet DreamWorks swag, which is why I sat down to write my own review of their current hit Puss in Boots.

The first thing that struck me about Puss In Boots was that the CG was of a much more hit-or-miss quality than what we’ve typically come to expect from the DreamWorks Animation team. While the rendering of the human characters was fairly convincing, the animal characters -- and especially our feline hero -- were another story entirely:

And while I assumed that the fact that everyone was speaking in Spanish was just a nod to inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity -- and that voice star Antonio Banderas would eventually revert to his charmingly accented English –- this did not turn out to be the case. It was at this point that I realized that what I was watching was not, in fact, DreamWorks’ current take on this children’s favorite, but instead the 1961 Mexican adaptation of Puss In Boots from Director/Producer Roberto Rodriguez, the guy who made all of those horrifying suitmation Little Red Riding Hood movies during the early 60s. And upon realizing that, my first reaction was to rush to the bathroom and wash the taste of corporate dong out of my mouth.

Not surprisingly, El Gato con Botas doesn’t bother itself with hewing too closely to the original Charles Perrault tale on which it’s based. At the same time, it’s almost admirable how economically it transforms what is basically the story of a cat swindling a bunch of hoity toity rich folk to enrich his master and get him laid into a Wizard of Oz style quest narrative suitable for feature treatment. Here our hero is Juanito (Humberto Dupeyron), a young shepherd boy who lives in a kingdom taken over by the tyrannical, puzzlingly orientalized ogre Federico (Armando Gutierrez). Also -- because this film, like Rodriguez’s Red Riding Hood entries, seeks to make itself as traumatizing as possible for its young audience -- Juanito lives near a horrifying forest filled with monsters.

Federico’s grueling program of taxation has driven the entirety of the kingdom’s inhabitants to the point of starvation, with the King and his family being no exception. Having leached away all of the royal family’s wealth, Federico next demands by way of tribute that the King turn over to him the young Princess Dora (Rocio Rozales), so that she may be married off to the ogre’s cloddish, Mini-Me-like son Babuchon. Juanito -- who, after a chance encounter with the Princess, has become quite smitten -- wants to prevent this from happening, and when he comes upon a magical old lady who lives in a TARDIS-like tree stump, his chance presents itself.

The old lady, who introduces herself as “The Lady of Time”, presents the nonplused Juanito with a tiny swashbuckler's outfit (look, much is made of the boots, but it should be remembered that there are also a jaunty feathered cap, a cape, and a sword involved) and tells him that, when he finds the one who can squeeze into them, he will have found the hero capable of vanquishing the ogre. Juanito then heads home to find that his father, who has suffered an accident while out in the woods searching for him, is on his death bed, and is promptly cast out of the house by his two nasty brothers, who don’t care to compete with him for the meager inheritance. As an afterthought, they toss the family cat out after him.

In keeping with the original story, the cat, fearing that he will be abandoned -- and at this point played by an actual cat -- then suddenly finds his voice and tells Juanito that he could be of great help if he only had some badass, cat-sized swashbuckling gear. We next get a shot of what looks like the unhappiest cat in the world, uncomfortably kitted out in that very gear, before a magical transformation takes place and the cat is no longer played by a real cat, but by a somewhat scarifying cat costume.

That costume is inhabited by the little person actor Santanon, who also starred in the Red Riding Hood films as the Wolf’s disturbingly masochistic skunk sidekick. Santanon -- who also went by the title “El Enano Santanon”, or “The Dwarf Santanon” -- made his name in these costumed animal capers. But if you want to see his face, that’s him in Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters, playing Waldo, the cackling dwarf assistant to the mad scientist Doctor Halder.

Yeah, that's the guy.

As in the Red Riding Hood films, Santanon does not provide the voice for his character, which in this case is instead provided by radio and voiceover actor Julio Lucena, who was also the Mexican voice of Barney Rubble, Dick Dastardly and Top Cat. (Maria Eugenia Avendano provided the skunk’s voice in the Red Riding Hood films.) Of course, if you are an American reading this, none of that information is relevant, because any familiarity you might have with El Gato con Botas would stem from the efforts of K. Gordon Murray, who distributed English dubbed versions of all of Rodriguez’s fairy tale movies to American television and kiddie matinees, ensuring that U.S. children of the post-Eisenhower era would grow up just as haunted by them as their Mexican counterparts.

Like La Caperucita Roja, El Gato con Botas combines competent commercial filmmaking with an occasional telltale shoddiness. While its bright colors and some of its fanciful sets are suitably beguiling, its animal costumes, which very well could have been made for the production, nonetheless look like they’ve been sitting in mothballs a bit past their expiration date. Those previously exposed to the Red Riding Hood films are also likely to recognize a sort of “house look” thanks to the many reused sets and props. Furthermore, Sergio Guerrero’s songs, though inoffensive in themselves, become weaponized once sung by grown men squawking in cartoonish children’s voices.

And yet the spectacle of watching a non-costumed supporting cast that includes serial lucha movie tough guy Nathanael “Frankenstein” Leon interact, and sometimes even fight with, these scruffy football mascots (which eventually come to include a human-sized rooster) never, ever gets old. This, combined with a number of other surreal trappings, makes El Gato con Botas one of those movies that doubles its value by serving as both the viewing experience itself and the drug that you need to take in order to enjoy it. Meow!

In closing, I’d like to make clear that I’m far from seeing myself as being above the occasional enjoyment of a slick, CG animated 3D blockbuster -- nor, all ribbing aside, do I fault my friend Tars for occasionally writing about them. But, as dazzling and entertaining as some of those films may be, they can never be as singularly weird as a movie like El Gato con Botas, and become less capable of being so the more our screens are deluged with similar product. Sure, Rodriguez’s movie doesn’t strive for inclusivity by transparently including elements aimed at pleasing both kids and adults, as these contemporary movies are so often praised for. Instead, there is much within El Gato the intended appeal of which -- to young or old, man, woman or child -- is tantalizingly mysterious.

And that’s an opacity I can roll with; I don’t need to be flattered by you, while engaging in it, trying to show me the gears turning behind the process of entertaining me. I’d much rather be wondering what the fuck is wrong with you.


Anonymous said...

I too have noticed that Tars Tarkus has gone over to the Dark Side Of The Force, and no longer reviews movies that interest me. Boo! I watch No current Hollywood product, as a rule. I have nothing in common with the politically correct propagandizing that passes for modern Hollywood, and will Not give them money.

memsaab said...

"I’d much rather be wondering what the fuck is wrong with you." SO TRUE.

And also:

Todd said...

I don't know, Anonymous. I wouldn't write Tars Tarkas off so easily. His latest post shows that he's far from lost his edge.

Memsaab: Thanks for alerting me to the exploits of Don Gato. That's quite an epic song!

Anonymous said...

Todd- I've now seen Tars' new review and stand corrected. All I can say is that for me, mention of modern day Hollywood and it's denizens is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It's a pity, as I'm a big movie fan. Things will have to change quite a bit before they get a nickel of my money, though.

Danny said...

This movie looks like it could easily be recut into a horror film. Good review!

Todd said...

Thanks, Danny. They'd just have to reinsert the deleted scene where we see inside Puss in Boots' cupboard filled with human heads.

kenjn60 said...

Oh boy the childhood memories. I remember watching the K. Gordon Murray English dubbed screech-a-thon version with its off key songs and out of synch dialogue on Saturday morning tv. We learned the song "Don Gato" in third grade.

Todd said...

Kenjn60: Given the existence of that K.G.M. version, I feel lucky that I got to watch it in the original Spanish. Though the Spanish version is plenty screechy and squawky on its own.

Anonymous said...

Me too! It was a yearly ritual to watch movies that would be shown during certain holidays. The English version of this movie was among the ones that we looked forward to seeing around Christmas (I think). I don’t think I’ve seen this movie since the late 70s.

After seeing the now popular Puss In Boots commercial just minutes ago, I thought of my beloved childhood version and started an IMDB and Google search. IMDB had nothing but Google led me here.

I think the writer of this article, and I thank you for the shared experience. 🙂