Just as the 3-D revolution is sailing over the edge of the cliff to overpriced, under-produced ruin, here comes “Puss in Boots.’’ I don’t know if it will be enough to save the technology - I’m not sure I want it to - but, man, does this thing look good. The landscapes in DreamWorks’ latest computer-animated return to Fairy Tale-land have a richness of detail and an illusion of depth that makes every other 3-D job this year (yes, you too, “Lion King’’) look like cut-and-paste hackwork. The action, and there’s a lot of it, flows consistently and cleanly. The hero’s best frenemy is an egg, and a more bulbously tactile egg you’ll never see. Visually, “Puss’’ is close to rapture.
What? Is the movie itself any good? For a spinoff of a series (“Shrek’’) that has been pounded into the pavement, surprisingly so. “Puss in Boots’’ doesn’t break any new ground in the storytelling department, and its reliance on go-go-go state-of-the-art action sequences grows wearying by the end, but the movie has a devilish wit that works for parent and child alike, and it moves like a bobsled. It’s funny and fun, and if it’s not up to Pixar level, it still represents the best of what the competition has to offer.
And it has Antonio Banderas, who gives a more full-bodied performance with his voice than most actors do with their entire instrument. Banderas also arrives in the Boston area today as the star of Pedro Almodóvar’s blissfully florid kinkathon “The Skin I Live In,’’ and for the continued mental health of your children, please don’t get these two mixed up. “Puss in Boots’’ is the movie about the sword-wielding cat who joins up with a talking egg to rob a giant castle in the sky. You know, the normal one.
Directed by Chris Miller (who helmed the unfortunate “Shrek the Third’’) and scripted by a small crowd of writers, “Puss’’ is a razzle-dazzle 3-D ride that’s at its best when the ride slows to a halt and the characters get to lob zingers at each other. The film mixes a little bit of Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief’’ with a lot of “Zorro,’’ the title character swashbuckling his outlaw way toward the legendary magic beans of “Jack and the Beanstalk’’ fame. He comes up against a sultry cat burglar named Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), who turns out to be in the employ of Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), an ambitious and possibly crazed bad egg with a longstanding grudge against our hero.
The lengthy, extremely funny flashback in which Puss narrates his life story is an example of what DreamWorks Animation does best: cleverly sardonic character comedy that, when it clicks, approaches the rarefied realm of a classic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes. The DreamWorks movies don’t have soul - that’s Pixar’s job - but they do have inventiveness and craft and a dedication to entertaining that’s gratifying in an age of cookie-cutter family fare. And they’re open to the inspired whim, like a flamenco dance fight that comes out of nowhere and briefly lifts “Puss in Boots’’ to deliriously silly levels of nonsense.
More than Pixar, though, DreamWorks bows low to the marketplace demand that a modern CGI kiddie film be fast, noisy, and big. Miller and his minions know they have a 3-D IMAX screen to fill, so many of the scenes devolve into roller-coaster rides, at times almost literally. The heroes have to steal the magic beans from Jack and Jill, who are not the cute kids from the nursery rhyme but hulking ogres with domestic issues - Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris have fun with the voices - and after a while, one can-you-top-this? chase scene just follows another. If you have a Six Flags discount card, you may want to bring it along.
These sequences are hardly boring, but they are surprisingly ordinary - the expected high-tech hyper-stim all modern children now consider their due. They don’t stick to your ribs the way the film’s smaller, more playful bits of business do: the spaghetti-western split screens that comment wryly on the action or the way Banderas can get a laugh simply through the top-spin he puts on a line like “Do not joke with me about magic beans.’’ The star is the most special special effect in “Puss in Boots,’’ for all the visual wow the studio has packed into the film. And you don’t need the fancy glasses to appreciate him. All you need is ears.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.