Long-delayed Shrek-verse spinoff delights, amuses, thrills
The staggeringly mediocre Shrek franchise may be thankfully, mercifully dead and buried, moldering in the deep, dank basement of DreamWorks Animation Studios, but if we’ve learned anything over the last several decades, it’s that nothing, least of all a onetime profitable, studio-owned franchise, stays dead and buried for long, let alone forever. Until the inevitable day when a zombified Shrek, decomposing Fiona, and undead friends return, however, what’s left of a once thriving, four-quadrant fanbase can pass the time with the decade-in-the-making Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. The biggest surprise, though, isn’t that Puss in Boots is back (that too, like our mortality, was inevitable), but that it not only improves on the semi-forgettable first entry, but stands on its own quality-wise, delivering a not unwelcome mix of rapid-fire laughs, top-notch animated thrills, and sober, thought-provoking themes in equal measure.
When we catch up to the title character, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas, perfectly parodying self-congratulatory, Latin machismo), he’s leading a virtual party at the mansion of an unnamed governor somewhere in the Shrek-verse’s equivalent of Spain. An anarchic, chaotic force for live-today, forget-tomorrow hedonism, Puss celebrates the greatest hero he’s ever encountered (i.e., himself) via frenetic, kinetic song and dance. When an enormous giant sleeping nearby awakens from the din, Puss in Boots rides out to face him, all the while engaging in the kind of swashbuckling derring-do typical of Douglas Fairbanks (both Sr. and Jr.) and Errol Flynn. It’s full of color, texture, and above, all inspired, death-defying action, at least until Puss in Boots, celebrating his latest triumph a beat too early, falls prey to a falling church bell.
That prologue sets up the Puss in Boots central dilemma: When he realizes he’s squandered eight previous lives, Puss in Boots comes face-to-face with his own mortality. With only one live left to live, Puss decides that an adventure- and risk-free life remains the only viable choice, hanging up his cape, hat, boots, and sword and trading them in for a supposed life of retired leisure in a home for stray cats. In a comically nightmarish vision, Puss swaps out his independence for a degraded, if safe, secure life, eating paw-to-paw at a trough with the other cats, letting his beard grow to an ungainly length, and otherwise passing what remains of his time on Earth in chronic despair.
It’s certainly a bleak, downbeat, even risky development for a familiar character — and a film — supposedly aimed at family-friendly audiences, but before long, Puss has returned to action mode, eager to find a seemingly mythical fallen star and with that fallen star, a last wish that will restore his eight lives back to him. It’s not, of course, as easy as it sounds. Crawford, Mercado, and their screenwriting collaborators throw several, interlocking obstacles in Puss’s path, beginning with Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), Puss’s old flame, a crime family consisting of Goldilocks and her adopted bear family, Papa (Ray Winstone), Mama (Olivia Colman), and Baby Bear (Samson Kayo), and the Big Bad Wolf (Walter Moura), a figurative and perhaps literal personification of Death stalking the now fearful and fear-filled Puss. Another gauche villain, Little/Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney), also shows up periodically to impede and otherwise obstruct Puss and friends.
While the preceding description makes it sound like Puss in Boots: The Last Wish contains too many characters and too many subplots, Crawford, Mercado, and their collaborators deftly weave them into the overarching plot involving Puss’s search for the wishing star and with it, eight new chances at life. Along the way, Puss gets the obligatory renewed perspective on past choices and future possibilities, a re-start of his long-dead romantic relationship with the wary Kitty, and a brand-new best friend, Perro (Harvey Guillén), who also doubles as cynic-free comic foil that children — and quite possibly the adults accompanying them — will adore for his can-do positivity and unbridled optimism under even the most adverse of circumstances.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish matches sterling voice work, multi-layered characters, and tightly structured plotting into a winning, engaging, often irresistible combination. Add to that a 4:1 hit-to-miss ratio joke-wise, visually inventive gags, and anti-realistic, more cartoon-influenced animation style that better fits the material, including visual stylings borrowed from Spider: Into the Spider-Verse, and it’s almost enough to forgive the last two or three sub-par contributions to the Shrek franchise. Almost.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish opened theatrically on Friday, December 23rd.