Saturday, February 18, 2023

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish - All That Glitters is Gold

As the Shrek franchise dwindled in popularity back in the 2000s, a process that began with the poor reception to Shrek the Third, DreamWorks officially spun of the franchise to center more around Puss in Boots, an anthropomorphic cat parody of Zorro introduced in Shrek 2. Puss, notably voiced by Antonio Banderas, first received a theatrically-released spin-off, Puss in Boots, back in 2011, then a perhaps lesser-known Netflix series, The Adventures of Puss in Boots, which ran from 2015 to 2018. During Puss’ time in the spotlight, effectively taking over the franchise, DreamWorks had announced a Shrek 5, which has yet to see a proper release, let alone any solid news on its development.

In the meantime, Puss in Boots recently received a sequel, The Last Wish, in late 2022. Considering the 11-year gap, the announcement came as quite a surprise and I initially didn’t have much interest, as I hadn’t seen the previous film out of a lack of interest. Its very positive reception, however, convinced me otherwise and I finally saw a theatrical screening after it received an Oscar nomination for “Best Animated Feature”. As it turns out, not only does The Last Wish live up to the hype, it may have actually surpassed the quality of most of Disney and Pixar’s own output from the last few years.

After defending the town of Del Mar from a giant that he had accidentally awakened, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), renowned hero and outlaw, is down to the last of his nine lives. While drinking in a cantina, Puss meets a mysterious Wolf (Wagner Moura), who scares him into hiding. While wasting his life away in the home of the cat lady Mama Luna (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), he learns of a Wishing Star that is said to grant any wish to the one bearing its map, which he believes will restore his nine lives so he can continue adventuring. After stealing the map for himself, Puss travels to the Dark Forest where it resides, accompanied by the thief Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault) and Perrito (Harvey Guillén), a naïve dog. Also after the wish are Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears Crime Family, as well as “Big” Jack Horner (John Mulaney), whom Puss had stolen the map from.

Puss in Boots (Antonio Bandreas, middle) searches for the Wishing Star with the
aid of Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault, left) and Perrito (Harvey Guillén, right).

For those keeping track, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish takes place after the events of Shrek Forever After. However, the story is otherwise very self-contained and doesn’t require anything more than passing knowledge of its relation to Shrek to understand. This worked out for the purposes of this review, as I hadn’t seen Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After or Puss in Boots beforehand, only the original Shrek and Shrek 2.

Considering the farcical approach of previous Shrek films, including an increasing number of anachronisms and reliance on topical pop culture references, The Last Wish provides a rather surprising, even refreshing, change of pace. Rather than using the “fractured fairy tale” angle largely for laughs, the fairy tale characters feel more carefully chosen to bring out the most of the story’s themes. The references haven’t magically vanished, but the film now actually trusts the audience to understand them rather than spelling them out through dialogue or caricature. This also lets the humor have a more timeless character-driven feel, as it now includes not only a good number of lighthearted laugh-out-loud jokes, but also a healthy dose of black comedy, especially when Perrito explains his backstory.

Compared to Shrek and Shrek 2, The Last Wish also features a more complex storyline, with three groups of characters and just as many subplots. Despite this, it never feels bloated, as each group has a similar goal, finding the Wishing Star and making a different wish, and their subplots develop in service of the overarching themes, as well as directly or indirectly contributing to Puss’ character development. These include connected themes like family and selfishness, as well as surprisingly tactful approaches to rather mature themes of mortality, anxiety and PTSD. There’s even a scene that realistically depicts Puss having a panic attack.

As if a tightly-paced and easy to follow story wasn’t enough, The Last Wish also has incredible villains, perhaps two of the best that DreamWorks has ever conceived. Of the two, Big Jack Horner is irredeemably evil, but entertainingly so, as he’s not only fully aware of how evil he is, he revels in it. Compared with other modern animated villains, who are either misunderstood or have tragic and sympathetic backstories, this approach feels very refreshing. It helps as well that he’s highly quotable, especially his interactions with Ethical Bug (Kevin McCann), a funny parody of Jiminy Cricket and a great addition to the Shrek universe.

In contrast to Big Jack Horner is the Wolf, who feels at times like he came out of a horror movie. Every scene with him instantly ramps up the intensity through a potent combination of various elements, from his leitmotif to the unsettling camera angles and his simple but effective design. As the main source of Puss’ anxiety throughout the film, DreamWorks did an amazing job making him genuinely terrifying to the point that my hair stood on end on at least one occasion. Since I’ve hardly ever had this sort of reaction to an animated villain, or really any film villain, I would consider this a plus.

The Wolf (Wagner Moura) quickly establishes that he's a genuine threat.

One big point in The Last Wish’s favor, however, is the animation. The art style clearly took inspiration from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but puts its own spin on it so that the film resembles a living storybook. Movements are much more fluid, the characters are far more expressive than ever, including subtle changes in the eyes, and camera angles feel far more daring. The action scenes especially go really hard with dynamic angles and camera movements, as well as impressive visual effects that really sell the impact each character makes. Perhaps the only flaw is one scene where framerate changes are kind of obvious, and at least once two different framerates are going on, but it’s very minor and doesn’t otherwise detract from the overall enjoyment of the film.

As icing on the cake, The Last Wish has great voice acting. While it’s probably not much of a surprise from a modern DreamWorks production, it can feel that way considering it’s a Shrek film that, for the most part, actually takes itself more seriously. Antonio Banderas is phenomenal as Puss, elevating the role above and beyond the initial conception of a cat-themed parody of Banderas’ own performance as the title character in The Mask of Zorro with a much broader range of emotional depth. Wagner Moura is also phenomenal as the Wolf, portraying him perfectly as a menacing and imposing figure without ever feeling like he’s trying too hard. Of course, John Mulaney does a great job hamming it up as Big Jack Horner while Kevin McCann makes his minor role as Ethical Bug even more memorable through a hilarious and spot-on impression of James Stewart. For an added bonus, the film doesn’t have any big musical numbers, but it does have one original song, “Fearless Hero”, that is not only used diagetically, but also features a very catchy rhythm and chorus that’s sure to stick with you.

If you’re on the fence about seeing a new movie in the Shrek universe, let alone a sequel to a movie from 2011, I would encourage you to watch The Last Wish. It’s truly a breath of fresh air within the current animation landscape and shows a depth of maturity and tact that other films could potentially learn from. Between it and The Bad Guys, it should be interesting to see what’s in store for DreamWorks Animation, especially if what they learn from this carries over into a potential Shrek 5.

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