Cari Lynn is an AwardsLine contributor

Puss in Boots has not yet acquired his ogre-killing ways (nor his hairballs) in his eponymous feature film debut — a “prequel” to Puss’ supporting role in 2004’s Shrek 2. Still, director Chris Miller’s affection for the swashbuckling feline, to say nothing of the vigorous marketing and awards-savvy support of DreamWorks Animation, has helped propel Puss In Boots to a Best Feature Animation Oscar nomination.

“I loved the character of Puss in Boots as soon as he appeared,” says Miller, who was head of story on Shrek 2 and went on to direct Shrek The Third. “I can’t take credit for its origin [in Shrek 2], but once the character appeared, everyone wanted to write for him. I’ve always loved his devilish sense of adventure — and Antonio Banderas’ persona coming out of this tiny, adorable package.”

Although Puss In Boots bowed October 28 with lower-than-anticipated numbers at $34.7 million (blame competition from Game 7 of the World Series along with a Northeastern blizzard), it eventually managed to claw its way to a domestic cume that’s four times its opening (over $135 million), aided by unflagging support of DWA.

But if there’s a super-sized push for the film now, Puss In Boots had dubious beginnings. The notion of a feature-length film had been tossed around for a while, arriving at the plan of a direct-to-video release in 2008. That modest plan didn’t last long. “There came the realization that this character deserved more,” Miller explains. “Finally, a draft of the script was written in the way that we could really build this story on. That was when I came on.”

With Puss’ 17th century French roots long forgotten, Miller and his team turned up the volume on the feline’s Zorro complex. They also reprised Jack and Jill from the Shrek franchise and added in other recognizable names from the fairy tale world, such as Humpty Dumpty and Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk — only they flipped each personality upside down. “We tried to create a mythology around these characters. Maybe you heard these stories growing up, but the characters did not turn out as you thought they would,” Miller jokes of the inventive but diabolical Humpty Alexander Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) and the surprisingly maternal Jack (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s hounding Jill to start a family. But counter to other animated flicks, the team wanted to steer clear of pop culture references. “Sometimes they work if done very, very well, but you run the risk, even for a second, of snapping the audience out of a movie,” Miller says. “We wanted to make a timeless classic.”

And then, by chance, Miller scored what’s been called DreamWorks’ “secret weapon.” It was about a year and a half into development when Guillermo del Toro, who’d just finished writing The Hobbit, stopped by the studio and was shown a snippet from Puss In Boots. As Miller explains with a chuckle, “He asked us if he could be a part of this, and it was like, ‘Ah, sure, Guillermo. … I’m sure we can find something,’ ” Miller says. Del Toro became executive producer.

“We were really inspired by him,” Miller says. “We worked out a system for him to come in once every few months or whenever we had something new to show him. If we needed someone to bounce ideas off of, he was always there, and if we had a problem we were tackling, we’d get Guillermo on the red phone — our emergency phone — and ask him advice on what we should do with a certain character or scene. It was like having our own film school.” Miller cites del Toro’s involvement in one of the most memorable characters. “Guillermo loved the dreamy quality of Humpty Dumpty. He suggested we push that further, make him more like Da Vinci.”

When asked about DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg’s involvement, Miller gushes: “He was a great partner on this film. He knew we were going for something different. Even early on, when we were looking to find our voice and set the tone, he gave us a lot of leeway, a lot of space to do that. He saw us fall on our face a few times and continued to support us.” Miller says Katzenberg even contributed some of the best jokes, citing the scene where Puss recounts his childhood story to Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek), and it puts her to sleep. “The method that DreamWorks is using, and it makes a difference, is that their movies all have an individual stamp and feel to them,” Miller said. “There’s no studio brand. For me, all the films have a very unique take on things. It’s become a filmmaker-driven studio.”

DWA has also perfected the art of churning out sequels, and while Miller emphatically says he’d love to do a sequel, he is unaware of any plans for one yet. But Miller isn’t saying much to questions about the Oscar chances for Puss In Boots and is mute about anything involving rival animation factory Pixar/Disney Animation Studio Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, who just happens to head up the animation branch of the Academy. Call that reticence superstition or clever politics. Or maybe it’s just, cat’s got your tongue?

(Chris Miller photo: Getty Images)