Wednesday, December 3, 2008

wears boots, can talk


Like many of my most amazing adventures, this one begins in the thrift store, where a mint-in-box copy of the Nintendo Entertainment System Puss 'N Boots Pero's Great Adventure "Game Pak" one day awaited my feverish little hands. Price? One dollar. That's what I call value. 

Well, actually this story REALLY begins in 1969, when Toei Animation Company released the film that would give Toei its mascot and inspire two sequels. The Wonderful World Of Puss ‘N Boots is one of Toei's many excellent 1960s theatrical releases. Falling somewhere between the classy quasi-full animation of Little Norse Prince aka Horus Prince Of The Sun and the wacky limited gag animation of Jack And The Witch, Puss ‘N Boots is both a retelling and an expansion of Charles Perrault’s famous European fairy tale about the talking cat with the surprising taste in footwear. Dubbed and released in America by American International Pictures, it became a staple of children's video for years. And with key animation by a guy named Hayao Miyazaki, it became an object of interest for those same children, now grown up and hooked on them there Japanese cartoons.

The movie begins with a bang as Pero, the talking cat in question, is sentenced to death by the Legion Of Cats for failing to kill a mouse. "I always side with the underdog," Pero nonchalantly explains. Three cat-assassins are assigned to kill Pero, and in escaping them Pero runs headlong into Pierre, the human half of the cat-boy equation.

Pierre’s squeezed out of his inheritance by his two evil brothers and ignominiously thrown into the rain, so with nothing to lose, he and Pero join forces to see the wide world. They stop in the first big medieval town they find, and find out that local Princess Rosa has been betrothed to the evil wizard Lucifer, a giant ogre with a perpetual dopey look. Pero figures this is their big chance to score, so Pierre pretends to be royalty while Pero pulls strings behind the scenes. There's lots of slick 60's Toei animation, crazy Eisenstein-style cross-cut editing, and what appears to be a trial run for the finale of Lupin III Castle Of Cagliostro as Pero battles Lucifer in Lucifer's castle. Now, I'm not very knowledgeable in the fairy tale department, but as near as I can tell, this isn't too far from the original story, which also featured an evil ogre and unwilling matrimony.

Puss ‘N Boots is an entertaining hybrid between Toei's full-motion stuff and the limited animation that would become their 1970s hallmark. The character designs are really stylized, but that only enhances the middle-ages feel of the film, further heightened by the use of actual medieval paintings in some scenes. The dubbing by Peter Fernandez's Titan Studios is zippy and fun, with Corinne Orr's "Spritle" voice in full effect. There are, however, too many songs. Though it's a slow starter, Puss ‘N Boots’ last third is a full-on actioner, the equal to any of Toei's other 60s offerings. Some of this film is downright frightening and may not be recommended for younger viewers. Thanks to Diskotek Media it was released on DVD here in the United States, including subtitles and the original trailer. Toei felt so warmly about Pero that he’d become the company's mascot, a corporate figurehead promising fun and adventure for the children of the world.

Puss would return in 1972’s Return of Pero aka Ringo Goes West, an hour-long full-on Western. “Go Go Town” is run by a corrupt mayor and terrorized by his gang of outlaws, and when Pero and Jimmy ride in, they come to the aid of young restaurateur Annie. After a few gunfights, high-noon showdowns, rescues by tribes of mouse-Indians, wagon chases, and attacks by the three cat-assassins always on Pero’s trail, justice is restored to the West and kids can enjoy the next short film in that season’s Manga Matsuri screening. This film received an English dub and a limited Western release, but remains obscure on this side of the Pacific.

In 1976 the cat returned for one final film, the impetus for the game behind this column, the reason we’re all here reading and/or writing this - Nagagutsu o Haita Neko 80 Nichikan Sekai Isshū, or as we like to call it, Puss ‘N Boots Travels Around The World. 400 years after the events of the first film, Pero is still a happy-go-lucky talking cat with mice for friends, and in this film, he's called "Pushty". Anyway, "Pushty" is a waiter in a restaurant in a Victorian-era town full of talking animals. In this furry paradise resides the wealthy, actual-pig billionaire Sir Rumblehog, who posits the statement that nobody could go around the world in less than 150 days. "Pushty", Puss, Pero, whoever, calls his bluff and bets that he could circumnavigate the globe, not in a piddling 150 days, but in the unheard-of-time of 80 days. The bet is on and "Pushty" sets off in his self-designed little boat, accompanied by his hippo pal and his loyal mice. Oh yeah, and he's being pursued by the same three cat assassins, who apparently have been chasing "Pushty" for 400 years. That's job security for you. Welcome to Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days starring talking animals, animated with Toei's mid-70s team of slightly-better-than-TV-average animators.

Puss sets off to conquer the globe - Spain, Venice, Arabia, Mississippi, Hong Kong- and drama ensues when Rumblehog hires the evil inventor Dr. Mysterioso to stop "Pushty" with various evil mechanical devices - a drill car, a submarine, an armored aeroplane. Mysterioso’s character design will be lifted wholesale for use as the evil genius Moriarty in 1984’s anime series Famous Detective Holmes, and the kooky wolf provides the film with some much needed action. After the North Pole battle with Mysterioso's gigantic mechanical wooly mammoth (on loan from Little Norse Prince), it's time for Pero to have a final showdown with Rumblehog in the... clock tower. 

Yup, if the first Puss movie was training for Cagliostro, then Around The World is the final exam, because this one has gear-dodging, stair-climbing, ladder-grabbing, clock-face-perching action galore. Rumblehog becomes definitely homicidal, foaming at the mouth and attempting to hack Puss to bits with an axe. When he's not attempting defenestration, that is. This is for kids? Fortunately "Pushty" foils Rumblehog, wins the contest, and sets out for another trip, again pursued by the three cat-assassins. 

Around The World has the sort of animation you'd see in better-than-average episodes of Grandizer; slick, stylish, but not exactly stunning. I get the feeling that after the success of Mazinger Z, Toei figured the kids would watch anything and the frame rates be damned. It is certainly more kinetic than the first Puss film and while at times it feels like a retread of earlier movies like Animal Treasure Island, well, those films are great, so that's OK. Dubbed into English by Peter Fernandez, the film was released in America by Columbia Pictures Home Video and received VHS releases of varying quality and legality.

At any rate that bring us full circle to the wonderful Nintendo Entertainment System, because the NES game Puss ‘N Boots Pero's Great Adventure is basically the story of Around The World. You're Pero - PERO, dang it, none of this "Pushty" nonsense- and you go around the world, dodging the evil drill cars and airships of your enemies -Sir Rumblehog and Dr. Mysterioso, or, rather, Count Gruemon and Dr. Gari-gari – whose in-game appearances I personally have not yet reached because the boss of the London level is a BASTARD.

 It's a typical 8-bit game, full of cheesy music and the kind of graphics that were really only slightly better than your old Colecovision and bosses thrown in seemingly at random. I assure you there are no giant metal frogs in the original film.

The best part about this game is the cool production art; lots of anime style illustrations of Pero's worldwide adventures highlight the instruction manual. There's even a little color poster featuring screen shots and scenes from Around The World. This video game was brought to us by the mysterious and enigmatic "ELECTRO BRAIN CORP and TOEI ANIMATION CO., LTD., a Premiere Animation Company Of The Orient" - at least, that's what it says on the box. It's fascinating that the success of the NES would bring us games based on 15 year old films; in Japan it would count as promotion for Toei itself, but in the States would anybody even remember the Puss ‘N Boots films? Besides me, I mean? Somebody must have; the glorified TV commercial "Captain N: The Game Master" featured an episode based on the Puss N' Boots NES game (thanks to T.C.!)

It is an entertaining enough game, I guess. So many of the Nintendo-era video games were side-scrolling platformers that they even invented a term ("platform game") to describe them, and this game is no different; a Super Mario Brothers starring a fairy tale cat turned corporate logo traveling around the world gettin' into fights like Russell Crowe. You can probably find it on a NES emulator or as downloadable content via your favorite Nintendo online service, or watch somebody else play through it on YouTube. Or, you can pick it up in the thrift store for a dollar. Either way, it's an intriguing look at a fairytale cat turned animated movie star turned corporate logo. And now that Discotek’s Puss ‘N Boots is out of print, it’s one of the few remaining ways to enjoy Pero’s English-language adventures.

-Dave Merrill

portions of this article originally appeared at Anime Jump

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subatomic brainfreeze said...

Even weirder is that NES Puss'N'Boots seems to have been made specifically for North America.

Had the game as a kid: it was one of the many childhood influences I didn't understand had anything to do with Japanese cartoons for years.

d.merrill said...

I did not know that, that it was specifically made for North America. By a giant Electro Brain, one hopes.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Listen while we tell.
Until they cast a spell.
About a cat
who promised that
all things must turn out well!

d. merrill said...
I did not know that, that it was specifically made for North America. By a giant Electro Brain, one hopes.

We only hope! Given the circumstances with the way the game had been released, I sorta like to think maybe there was one kid out there in the nation who perhaps had seen either the first or third film via home video and perhaps may recognize the feline on the cover and thought "Cool, it's that cat from that real funky cartoon I saw years back!" There's always a slim chance a rental store out there might had either one of those tapes along with the NES game at their disposal at some point in time, but that's my opinion.

The dubbing of the first movie though was handled by Fred Ladd I believe, but Fernandez had the third film (the one with Pussty or whatever name used). While AIP had the first film along with a few other Toei features of the late 60's/early 70's in their package, Turner Program Services somehow got a hold of the third film, plus a number of other Toei anime features of the 70's and 80's that may either aired on TV or were released on home video such as through the "Magic Window" series. Peter Fernandez handled most of the dubs in Turner's package that include such classics as "The Wild Swans", "Taro the Dragon Boy", "Thumbelina" and Äesop's Fables" (I guess the last of Toei's literary adaptations as that came out in '84).

That second film that was released in '72, "The Return of Pero", did get an English dub that showed up in the UK on home video, though much like "Puss 'n Boots Travels the World', Pero gets another lame name change as Ringo. Here's a couple clips of this film someone kindly threw up on YouTube...

Mysterioso, the character design of which will be lifted in toto for use as the evil genius Moriarty in the 1984 TV series FAMOUS DETECTIVE HOLMES, provides the film with some needed action.

That character's design (a.k.a. Dr. Gari-gari) was also quite similar to a character that shows up in Animal Treasure Island named Baron. It's only really noticeable to me due to those pointy cheek ruffs.

Anonymous said...
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Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Say, thanks for referring to my old review on Horus, Prince of the Sun. I'm now sharing the love on The Ghibli Blog.

Thanks to internet downloads, I was able to see both Puss in Boots sequels this weekend. Neither came close to matching the freewheeling anarchy of the original 1969 movie, but the second movie, set as a Western, was pretty good and had its charms. The third movie, a rehash of "Around the World in 80 Days" was just a shambling mess. Clearly, all the studio's best artists were long gone (Takahata, Miyazaki, and the others went on to create Lupin III and Heidi by this point). There also are a lot of scenes that rip off the earlier Toei movies, like Animal Treasure Island, and Horus.

Perhaps that's why Miyazaki stole the clock tower climax? Was it a payback? You stole my work, now I'm stealing yours? Who knows.

I do remember the Puss in Boots NES game, and it wasn't that bad. It was never going to stack up against Contra or Castlevania, but it was nice. I wonder why Pero wasn't used in any more games or movies? He's still the corporate mascot. Strange.

Anyway, thanks a lot for this essay. It was a great read. Stop by the Ghibl Blog if you want to download the Puss sequels.

ananthi s said...

thanks for the post