The Shrek film franchise has prided itself in its family-friendly meta-commentary. However, the Puss in Boots spinoff walked a different path while staying true to the spirit of the universe aesthetically, canonically, and tonally. In a way, the prequel was refreshing but also lacked originality, which made Puss in Boots: The Last Wish one of the more pleasant animated surprises of the year. More than a decade later, the titular character is getting a sequel. But there is something noticeably different about this installment regarding its aesthetics and tone. Borrowing from the swashbuckling hero Zorro and pulling from other fairytales, the second installment is a welcomed return to the world we all know and love. And the best part of this is that the sequel is refreshing in its surprisingly darker and more mature approach to storytelling yet remains accessible to all ages in its kid-friendly action, adventure, and comedy.
In Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, the title favorite fearless feline hero (Antonio Banderas) has experienced many death-defying adventures and lived to sing and dance the tales about them all. However, during that time, he has spent eight of his lives frivolously, dying in eight cartoonishly comedic ways that could have been prevented. In his final life, the cat who thought he was invincible faces his mortality and the terrifying Death (Wagner Moura), who chases Puss in Boots like a cold shadow. He ominously whistles as he gets closer to his victim, and his blood-red eyes are so scary that they make the Puss’ fur stand straight up. Not only does his chilling presence add real stakes, but it also is in service of the film as it forces Puss to put his life in perspective.
Terrified that he will die, Puss in Boots runs away in fear, something he has never done before in the eight of his nine lives. As such, he buries his former identity and hides away in a secluded cottage where he lives with a clichéd crazy cat lady. As such, he’s lost his dignity and is a shell of his former self. He is even forced to befriend Perrito (Harvey Guillen), a dog disguised as a cat. Things are relatively peaceful, as peaceful as things can be for anyone going through a crisis and spiraling out of control. That is until Goldie (Florence Pugh) and her Three Bears Crime Family – Poppa Bear (Ray Winstone), Momma Bear (Olivia Coleman), and Baby Bear (Samson Kayo) – break in to claim the bounty on Puss in Boots. When they discover his grave, they inadvertently reveal their plans to find the mythical Wishing Star. Upon hearing this, Puss In Boots goes on one last quest to gain what he has lost while also discovering that there is more to life than the adventures you make of it.
But they aren’t the only ones searching for the Wishing Star. Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney) is also looking for it for greedy reasons. As such, Puss in Boots reluctantly teams up with Perro and his former ally Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault). Together, they use the Wishing Star map to cross the Dark Forest, which changes its landscape in accordance with the person that holds it and their emotional burdens.
Puss in Boots is one of those rare later installments of the Shrek franchise that strikes a nice balance between style and substance. Visually, it is reminiscent of Dreamworks’ previous film, The Bad Guys, which took an almost illustrative children’s book approach to the animation. Here, the film blends traditional hand-drawn and painted styles with new-age CG depth and movement. As a result, it creates something more dynamic and fun to look at. At times it does feel like a comic book at big-budget anime, as the action sequences have an impact on them. Quite literally. Battles with the Earth giant feel fluid and move at such a quick pace. The same can be said for the chase sequences. Meanwhile, showdowns with death are slowed down to a point to mirror the pacing that you’d see in some of the earlier Westerns. Just replace guns with swords and sickles, and throw a few nods to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western themes.
As great as the style is, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish also has a lot of substance. It’s unafraid to address themes about the value of life and the inevitability of death in dark and mature ways. And as emotionally heavy as existential crises are, the film finds the joy and humor in embracing what you have now and living your current life like it was your last.
Of course, since Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is set in the Shrek universe, there will be a lot of pop culture references and meta-humor. But the jokes aren’t as contrived as those films. In fact, much of it is done in service of the story, with Guillén’s Perrito providing much of the laughs. While others may see Perrito as deranged and oblivious, his endearing personality and ability to be positive during the direst of times make it hard not to like him. His innocence and genuine concern for others add just the right amount of brightness to an otherwise dark film.
As for the rest of the vocal talent, they are utilized in ways that justify their casting. Pugh makes for a hilarious boss as the leader of the Three Bears Crime Family, and the banter between herself and Coleman, Kayo, and Winstone comedically leans heavily into the idea that this is not just a gang; they are family. Then there’s Mulaney’s hammy performance as Jack Horner, the film’s chief villain with murderous tendencies and humorous cruelty to others. And since this is a film set in the world of Shrek, they are all twisted plays on fairy tale characters. Even Kevin McCann’s Ethical Bug – a play on Jimmy Cricket – has a few hilarious moments. Often times he fails to convince Jack Horner not to sacrifice his Baker’s Dozen help frivolously.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a wildly imaginative genre-bending animated film filled with characters undergoing an existential crisis, hilarious and heartfelt moments, and beautiful 2D and 3D animation. The script is poignant and clever, not once undermining its audience’s intelligence. Despite some of its predictability and familiar formula, it knows how to push to story forward the right way and when to lighten the mood with its meta-comedy, pop culture references, and music beats. More than a decade later, director Joel Crawford and co-director Januel Mercado, using a screenplay by Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow, have figured out a reason for us to revisit the Shrek franchise and want more out of it.