Given the worldwide success of the Shrek franchise, it was only a matter of time before we started seeing spinoffs, and so it comes as no surprise that the fall of 2011 sees the release of Puss in Boots. The feline lover-and-fighter quickly became an enormously popularly character following his initial appearance in Shrek 2, with his swashbuckling ways, his flirtatious voice (provided by Antonio Banderas), and his secret weapon - big, adorable eyes which turn grown men to jelly - and this new movie focuses solely on him. Directed by Chris Miller, the film again features Banderas as the leading voice, and is a prequel of sorts, telling the story of the events leading up to Puss's introduction to Shrek and Donkey, from Puss's point of view. The cast features the voices of Salma Hayek as Puss's paramour Kitty Softpaws, Zach Galifianakis as Humpty Dumpty, Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris as Jack and Jill, and even Guillermo Del Toro as the mysterious Moustache Man.
Taking over from Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell on musical duties is another of Hans Zimmer's Remote Control alumni, English composer Henry Jackman, who has already attracted a great deal of positive attention for himself following his generally very good work on the likes of Monsters vs. Aliens, Gulliver's Travels, and two other scores from earlier this year, X-Men First Class and the new Winnie the Pooh movie. As good as those scores were, Puss in Boots is clearly his best work to date. Taking his cues from several film music contemporaries as well classical composers Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel (whose Bolero is probably the epitome of Spanish classical music), Jackman's score is a wonderfully entertaining, high energy action-adventure score, topped with an appropriately healthy dose of Latin fire.
The first thing long-time film music fans will notice is how much of a similarity there is between this score and James Horner's Zorro scores, The Mask of Zorro and The Legend of Zorro. This is clearly intentional - temp track bleed-through at worst, loving homage at best - but is also wholly appropriate in a sort of neo-satirical way, acknowledging the fact that Banderas plays both Zorro and Puss, and that Puss is clearly a Zorro clone. This sense of tongue in cheek self-awareness runs through the entire film - and the entire Shrek series, really - and helps dispel the notion of the score being a "Zorro rip-off" and nothing more.
Written for a large orchestra with emphasis on strings and brass, as well as a vast array of Spanish and Mexican specialty instruments and percussion items, Jackman's score starts out with the energy turned up fully, and rarely lets up throughout the score's 66-minute running time. Upon hearing the opening cue, "A Bad Kitty", with its flashing guitars, flamenco-style hand claps and foot stomps, trembling castanets, resounding trumpet calls, and swirling string writing, you know what kind of experience the score has in store.
The main theme - a heroic fanfare with a romantic and passionate flourish - first appears in this cue, and is prominent throughout the rest of the score, appearing in many guises, and being played in numerous different instrumental combinations. The B-phrase of the theme is the one most clearly inspired by Horner, and generally tends to appear at moments of great emotion or pathos, where it plays as a recurring motif for Puss's heroism and gallantry, in cues such as the outstanding "Honor and Justice", the stirring "Confronting the Past", and the big finale in "The Great Terror" - the latter of which even manages to make use of Horner's favorite tension-builder, the shakuhachi bamboo flute.
The theme is especially adept at appearing in action settings, but has a mischievous edge to it in cues such as the playfully seductive pair of "Kitty Softpaws" and "Kitty-Cat Break-Out", and even a more pathos-laden stripped-down flavor in "Team Effort". In the flashback sequence of "The Orphanage", it runs through a variety of different guises as Puss recollects his kittenhood, and his first steps on the road to fame as a swordfighter, prior to him finally receiving the boots that will become his trademark; the variety of orchestral color and inventiveness in this cue, and the gamut of emotions Jackman squeezes into just over four minutes, is impressive indeed.
The action music, which first appears in "Chasing Tail" but features much more prominently in the score's second half, generally tends to be big, bold and lively, with strong rhythmic elements and a genuine sense of drama and adventure. Cues such as "That Fateful Night", the stirring "The Wagon Chase", "The Magic Beanstalk", the enormous "Golden Goose of Legend", and the aforementioned "The Great Terror" could have successfully appeared in any serious live-action western without much alteration. Similarly, the surprisingly dark "I Was Always There" uses the guitars and accordions in a different way altogether, ramping up the tension levels, before building up into a tragedy-laded and unexpectedly emotional finale.
The haunting trumpet calls, whistles, electric guitars and harmonicas of "One Leche" are excellent pastiches of vintage spaghetti western-era Ennio Morricone, and similar ideas carry through the likes of "Holy Frijoles" and parts of "Confronting the Past". Similarly, the very brief "Jack and Jill" has flavors of Hans Zimmer's `hallucinating Jack Sparrow' music from the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, although this is just a passing nod and a wink. There is also a twinkling, magical motif for the Jack and the Beanstalk sequence that reaches its zenith in "Castle in the Clouds" and the first half of the aforementioned "Golden Goose of Legend", where the soaring central melody tends to be accompanied by all manner of chimes, cooing choirs, and celestial superfluities. In a way, it's a shame that the Jack and the Beanstalk motif is destined to overshadowed by the Latin flair of the Puss theme, because it's good enough to be a main theme in its own right, and is likely to be forgotten amongst all the panache elsewhere.
In addition to his own work, Jackman also collaborated with the Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero, collectively known as Rodrigo y Gabriela, whose contributions to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides earlier this year were strangely muted, but who are on top form here. Their two showpiece cues, "Diablo Rojo" and "Hanuman", are simply sensational; the speed and precision of their performances are nothing short of breathtaking. This is exactly the stuff I wanted to hear from them in Pirates of the Caribbean and didn't get, but fans of their work will absolutely love what they have brought to this project.
The album finishes with "The Puss Suite" - a superb and highly enjoyable remix of the main theme underpinned by a more contemporary electronic beat and enlivened by a Crimson Tide-style male voice choir and an occasional "olé!" befitting Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias - and "The Giant's Castle", a restatement of the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk theme which ends the score with an appropriately magical tone.
Despite my protestations to the contrary and my assertations that it's an intentional homage, I suspect that many people will have issues with how similar Jackman's theme is to Horner's Zorro scores, and that it will result in many people decrying Puss in Boots as nothing more than a poor imitation. For me, however, to do so would be a huge injustice and a slap in the face to Jackman and all the work he has put into this score. The orchestral inventiveness, the fantastic use of the guitars and other Spanish specialty instruments, the outstanding Jack and the Beanstalk theme, and the show-stopping contributions of Rodrigo y Gabriela combine to make Puss in Boots one of the most unexpectedly engaging and entertaining score of the year, and confirms my earlier thought that Henry Jackman is poised to follow in the footsteps of Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell as possibly the most talented composer to emerge from Remote Control for many years.