It goes without saying the original Shrek significantly changed the animation landscape upon its release in 2001. It wasn’t just that it took age-old fairytales and emphasized their inherent absurdities through clever irony and wordplay, but the DreamWorks Animation film used a modern comedic style in a way that family-oriented animation hadn’t ever seen.
The Shrek sequels and spin-offs have been hit or miss — often at the same time. 2011’s Puss in Boots spin-off was more hit than miss, surprising audiences with how deep the irreverent world of Far Far Away could actually be.
For all intents and purposes, there was little expectation for the Puss in Boots movie to be that good, especially during a time when animated offerings were losing their consistency and the industry was finding ways to churn out cheap films marketed to wide audiences (and with wide releases). But for whatever reason, the team over at DreamWorks seems to have a fondness for the titular cat.
For the sequel, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Antonio Banderas returns to voice the titular Puss, a legendary feline swordsman who, upon dying, has now embarked on his ninth and final life. He ventures to find the Wishing Star, the legendary shooting star which has finally fallen for good and is now capable of delivering one last wish to whoever can find it. Along the way, Puss meets an overly-happy chihuahua (Harvey Guillen) and also reunites with his former fiancée, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek).
Puss overhears a conversation between Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears — her adoptive family — that the map to the Star is in the possession of Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney), a spoiled brat-turned-evil villain who wants to find the Star so he can wish to control all magic. Unlike many modern animation, which refuses to show us unequivocally evil characters, The Last Wish actually gives us a real, unredeemable villain and it’s actually refreshing. After all, this is a land of fairytales.
The world of Shrek has always done well to provide fun fairytale references, but Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is perhaps the best we’ve seen since the original Academy Award-winning original film. Director Joel Crawford (The Croods: A New Age), using an incredible script from Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow, makes sure to introduce us to some new characters, while also adding the detail of Jack Horner being a collector of fairytale artifacts. Throughout the film, we get to see him weaponize items such as the poisonous apples from Snow White, the “Eat Me” cookie from Alice in Wonderland, and, perhaps as a more forthright nudge at Disney, the bottomless bag from Mary Poppins.
Our hero is also being chased by a bounty hunter, a hooded wolf (Wagner Moura) who haunts Puss throughout his journey just like Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. And in the most Bergmanesque way possible, Puss goes on an existential journey as his physical self embarks on an actual journey.
Now, Puss, who previously feared nothing, is unable to fight the hooded wolf because he’s terrified of dying. For the first time ever, he has to come to terms with his own mortality and dissect the role of fear in his life. Was he only fearless before because he knew that he had nine lives? Can you only value your life once you actually fear losing it, and vice versa? And is fighting to live a result of fear rather than courage, even though it’s often perceived as a sign of the latter?
The film is pretty dark, sure, but its intrinsic maturity boils down to the intricate themes it’s dealing with. Where a lesser movie would stop at the definition of fear, The Last Wish blows its themes wide open and explores them in depth. Most of the ideas could only work with a feline protagonist who can resurrect, but only for a finite amount of times.
Throughout his journey, Puss discovers the importance of fear. The hero was once defined by his fearlessness, unaware that it was actually his flaws and “humanity” all along that made his life exciting and real, and even made him a better person — er, cat. It turns out that Puss didn’t fear Death because he was on his last life, but because he hadn’t valued his life yet. Once he valued it, he began fighting harder for it out of fear of losing it.
To get to the Wishing Star, the characters have to traverse the Dark Forest, which involves a series of abstract challenges along the way, which are different for each character. In hindsight, we come to see that the Forest is really just a purgatory put in place to test the integrity of your prospective wish.
There’s an inspired scene where Puss enters a circle of eight mirrors, each of which holds the persona of each of his previous lives. Our hero doesn’t just face his former selves, but has to toil with his resentment of them; he must come to terms with despising who he used to be.
Something else the movie nails is the animation design. Unlike the exceedingly annoying rate at which modern animation continues to struggle to be more lifelike, unaware that there is in fact a ceiling of acceptability for such endeavors, The Last Wish opts for an illustrated style similar to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or what the studio did this past year with The Bad Guys. Cels look painted rather than colored, and there’s a texture to the characters and backgrounds that feel comforting. However, unlike Spider-Verse, Puss in Boots still looks impressive as a modern, realism-based animated film with dimensionality. In other words, it looks just enough like what came before it.
Even more so than the first Puss in Boots movie in 2011, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is one of the most surprisingly great animated movies in recent years, and leagues better than what most of the competition is putting out. There’s no algorithm at play here; only a ridiculously wise script that’s unafraid to explore motifs that might go over the heads of its target audience. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter because the film is entertaining regardless.