Typically when it comes to films, and sequels especially, spending years in development hell can be a very bad sign. The difficulties in getting the product completed can reflect too many creative energies clashing or a lack of clear direction. It can lead to countless script revisions, studio interference, and perhaps worst of all: indifference from a public who no longer care about the property. But sometimes, a wait is very much worth it if the product is visually stunning, emotionally resonant, and entertaining as hell despite some minor weaknesses in the story. I’m talking of course about Puss In Boots: The Last Wish.
Set after the events of the Shrek films, we open on Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) discovering that he’s down to the last of his nine lives. After a brief stint laying low at a cat shelter, he decides to seek out a legendary wishing star to get the rest of his lives back. But he’s not the only one seeking it. Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears Crime Family also want the star, as does “Big” Jack Horner (John Mulaney). Then there’s the alpha wolf bounty hunter (Wagner Moura) tracking Puss to take him in dead or alive…preferably dead. Puss enlists the help of Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and a wannabe therapy dog (Harvey Guillén) to get to the star before anyone else does and before the Wolf can take him out.
As someone who doesn’t care much for the Shrek franchise as a whole, I found the original Puss In Boots to be a breath of fresh air. It was less concerned with fairy tale satire and far more focused on telling a fun story; in fact, the fairy tale elements were the least enjoyable parts of it. It was just a thrilling adventure with great animation, excellent voice acting, a tight and committed cast, and one of the best dance battles I’ve ever seen on film. The Spanish setting gave the film an infectious energy and distinct identity separate from the fantasy grab bag of the Shrek films.
But The Last Wish isn’t simply a recreation of what made the first film sing. This is an evolution in nearly all ways, from the visuals to the story to the voice acting. Nearly everything here is better the second time around, and even the flaws of the first film are less pronounced here.
The film’s animation is probably the most obvious change here. Inspired by the phenomenal animation of Into The Spider-Verse, the visuals in The Last Wish have a distinct style separate from what’s come before. Instead of aiming for more realistic textures and movement, the animation here is designed to more closely resemble a storybook. There’s a remarkable painterly vibe to the animation, giving it a look that’s both innovative and oddly, sweetly vintage. Some of the action scenes are also highlighted by a change in frame rate and speed, adding a kind of anime-style hyper-reality accent to set pieces that are already full of tight, precise choreography. That includes the adrenaline-fueled opening that has Puss going up against a tree giant and using a church bell as a weapon.
The visuals have matured and grown, divorcing themselves from the shiny, sleek approach of the Shrek films. I really can’t stress how appealing and intriguing the animation here is. From the perspective of a lifelong animation fan, seeing a unique animated approach from a mainstream studio makes my heart leap just a little. It’s a level of care and commitment that shows through in the final product. The stunning visual palette is perfectly echoed by Heitor Pereia’s dynamic, multi-colored score that blends acoustic and electronic and is capable of both sun-soaked, kinetic action and graceful, elegiac emotion.
The vocal performances have also matured in more ways than one. It’s not just a matter of the returning cast having themselves aged. Whereas the original film took place before the events of Shrek 2, this is set at some point after the last Shrek film. Hearing a gruffer, deeper, and more wonderfully aged voice coming out of Puss is highly appropriate, and Antonio Banderas does not disappoint. Puss has become an iconic character almost entirely based on Banderas’ charming performance and clear love for the role. Compared to the previous Puss film, the character here is just as full of bravado and daring-do, but that’s underlined by a world-weariness and (as we find out) paralyzing fear of death that he’s only barely able to hide. It’s a multi-layered performance that’s beautiful to see and hear.
Banderas isn’t alone, though. In general, the voice cast is entirely on their game and knocking it out of the dark forest. Salma Hayek’s Kitty Softpaws is the definite yin to Puss’ yang, her energy just as anarchic but much more controlled and subtle than Puss’ exuberance. Hayek is a fantastic counterpoint to Banderas, and just like in the first film, the two play off of each other perfectly. They’re complimented even further by Harvey Guillén’s “Perrito”, who’s earnestness and innocence always comes off as endearing and not annoying. It’s almost impossible to dislike the character, even as his wide-eyed approach to the world gets under the fur of the more cynical and pragmatic Puss and Kitty.
The antagonists here get just as much screen time as the good guys, and that’s for the most part a good thing. Florence Pugh’s Goldilocks is just a fun time, and her being at the head of a crime family of bears taps into a very specific form of logic. The family dynamic is balanced well, and Pugh is capably backed up by Olivia Coleman and Ray Winstone, who plays affable thuggery like a fine art. However, the most intriguing character by far is Wagner Moura’s Wolf. He has a legitimately terrifying design, with his glowing red eyes, intimidating build, and a super-sharp sickle in each hand. Moura’s performance is chilling and hypnotic in equal measures, and his mere presence gives the film a deliciously uncomfortable undercurrent of threatening, inescapable darkness.
That might seem like an odd quality to compliment in an animated film, but it makes perfect sense here. This is a story about facing your own limitations, and in the case of Puss, your own mortality. It’s an very adult existential crisis, but it’s handled with care and attention. For the first time in a long time, Puss has come face to face with his own fears, no longer able to hide them with his heroic persona. This is sometimes literal; whenever the Wolf draws near, every hair on Puss’ body stands on end. Seeing Puss in such a vulnerable way gives him new dimensions and depth, making his adventures more than just a fun time.
A strong theme in the story here is appreciation for what we have instead of focusing on what we lack or (more importantly) what we think we need to be happy and how we discover the truth between the two. The topic itself might not be terribly original, but the execution of it is handled well. When the characters reach the pocket dimension where the wishing star is kept, they discover that the land itself shifts based on who’s holding the treasure map and what obstacles they need to face to realize their inner truth and confront their own self-doubt. The film mines some deep psychological depths but packages them in a very digestible, colorful way.
Not every part of the story works as well as it should, however. Despite John Mulaney’s solid performance, Big Jack Horner is a poorly-sketched and fleshed-out character with the most basic motivations and backstory of the cast. He wants the star just so he can have all the magic power in the world, and that’s it. He’s your average sociopath bully, but armed with a bag of holding full of pilfered fairy tale artifacts and magical creatures (he uses a phoenix as a flamethrower at one point). There’s a reason he’s the least highlighted character in the trailers, and especially compared a genuinely compelling villain like the Wolf, he comes off as almost completely unnecessary. The threat he poses comes off as too basic compared to the Wolf and especially to Puss’ own inner demons. Jack’s continued presence in the film gives it a feeling of it being slightly overstuffed and the inescapable feeling that time spent with Jack could be spent better by focusing on literally any other character.
Regardless of Jack horning in on the plot, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a refreshingly and surprisingly complex film disguised as a lighthearted animated adventure. And that’s a very good thing. While still thriving on the swashbuckling vibe of Puss’ previous exploits, this film frames them in the context of maturity and the holistic nature of our life’s path. This isn’t just a fun, exciting quest; this is a fun, exciting quest with a highly relatable, highly emotional candy center. Who knew that a sequel to a Shrek spin-off would be so damn satisfying on so many levels?
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+