A series once defined by disdain for fairy tales embraces its mythical roots
It is hard to understate what a strange place the world of animation was in at the turn of the 21st century. The only recently resurrected dominance of the Disney Animation Studios was being easily outclassed by the upstart Pixar, which with just four films under their belt had established themselves as the premiere animation studio to watch. But another, perhaps more surprising competitor arose from Disney’s own ashes, with the Jeffrey Katzenberger’s produced Dreamworks Animation Studio came out with Shrek, a crude parody that snubbed its nose as Disney’s perceived moral stuffiness. It was an unexpected hit at Cannes of all places, and rode that popularity all the way to the first ever Academy Award for an Animated Feature.
The unfortunate thing about Shrek, for however ground-breaking its irreverence may have been at first blush, is that its undercurrent was equally cynical and opportunist. It was buoyed by the apparent power of a star-studded cast, a savvy utilization of relevant needle drops and a snide jeering at the competition. All of this felt refreshing, almost daring in 2000; twenty years on, and it feels more tiring, especially as that nastiness was explored again and again in three following sequels, each feeling more and more self-indulgent in their need to prove themselves as a fairy tale that is above fairy tales, winkingly telling you through its misanthropic hero that all of this bullshit is stupid and you’re welcome to scoff at it.
Part of that sneering included the strongest supporting character in the whole series: Puss in Boots. Originally introduced in Shrek 2 as a dangerous assassin turned confidant of Shrek, Puss as played by Antonio Banderas existed as a singular juxtaposition: a cute kitty that talks with the swaggering masculinity of Banderas. It’s a funny gag, but it is just one in an endless stream of gags.
But Puss as a character endured, both based on the strength of the juxtaposition, but also because Banderas seemed to take the character seriously, not simply as an opportunity to play into his already firmly established position as an action star and sex symbol. Banderas is both playing against type and exactly into it, lacing aspects of vulnerability into a role that frankly doesn’t necessitate it.
Flash forward those two decades, and Puss has arguably established himself as the most enduring aspect of Shrek’s legacy. That was already a spin-off film starring Puss, a winning heist story that allowed for a depth to Puss as a character, and a hit Netflix series. But despite all this, a second film by all appearances would be pushing the envelope on just how far you could take a joke that is effectively “A cat that talks like Antonio Banderas.”
Which makes the excellence of The Last Wish all the more remarkable. Puss’ newest adventure is not only good, it is probably the best in the whole legacy of the Shrek franchise. And not because it reclaims the sneering, superior position of the original, but rather because it trades that in for unashamed sincerity. The Last Wish has its winking fun with the story book setting, pushing against types and effectively subverting expectations. But it never feels like it is above the material. The earlier Shrek films would only reference Disney films as a punching bag, a means to differentiate themselves from the rusty old institution. The new adventure of Puss, by contrast, has knowing but seemingly loving references to surprising Disney material, seeming to view the competition less with contempt but rather a sense of sincere respect, mixed in with some well-meaning silliness and nudging. But the center spine of the film is recognizable emotion, not world-weary subversion for the sake of it.
The film starts with Puss at his arguably highest point we’ve seen him. A folk hero, most akin to Zorro, Puss is loved by the citizens and despised by the gentry. After an encounter causes Puss to meet an alarming end, the swashbuckling feline receives halting news: he has only one more life, having expended his other eight. Initially cavalier, Puss’ anxiety eventually catches up with him, especially when he starts being tracked by a scythe-wielding white wolf who seems keen to claim his last life, and he decides to retire.
That is, until he hears about a map to a famed wishing star which is meant to grant one wish for whoever finds it first. Thus Puss heads off for his newest adventure: to claim the star for himself, get a new set of fresh lives and get to live as recklessly as he once did. Of course, there are others who wish to claim the star. Namely, Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears are revealed to be a rough and tumble British crime family, and Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney) is a sadistic pie merchant and rare artifacts collector, and they all have their own sights set on the star and its power. Puss even crosses paths with his old colleague and romantic interest, Kitty Softpaws (Selma Hayek). Thus the chase starts, each attempting to jockey themselves into prime position to get to claim the single wish.
This is all fairly straightforward set-up, but the details in between are what make the story accelerate. There are so many wildly creative bits of animation in The Last Wish, including expertly choreographed fight sequences, unexpected magical twists and a pair of actually distressing villains in Horner and the Wolf. But Puss’s journey at the center is what cements it from yet another actioner to something truly special. A children’s film tackling questions of mortality, and the purpose of the lives we have been given, are rare, and it is even rarer for them to be wrapped in a package this effervescent and smoothly entertaining. That vulnerability Banderas always gave to Boots, the undercurrent, becomes the context here, creating a deeper hero and thus more emotional stakes.
Which says nothing of the stunning visuals the film employs. Using a technique similar to Enter the Spider-Verse, action sequences cleverly utilize slow-motion and dynamic lighting to allow the storybook to come alive, to play out like the dream version that plays across the mind of the child. The adventure itself feels grand and exciting, still inheriting some of Shrek’s gross-out grotesque humor, but utilizing it in constructive ways. In ways both implied and explicit, different characters have different distinct visual cues and flares, different intentionality. And those differences are expressed effortlessly in the look of the film, blending these tones together to create something that feels unique unto itself.
That is all in service of the story however, which is where The Last Wish most shines. If Shrek was a sneering chastising of fairy tale convention and structure, The Last Wish is a stylish and clever reimagining of a new fairy tale, not ashamed or above such a status. When it plays against expectation, it is never an end unto itself, but rather establishing thread that will in turn pay off both narratively and emotionally. It draws you through a thrilling adventure, one that will have you face-to-face with death itself. By evolving past the central cynicism of the Shrek world, it creates something that feels both current and timeless, a new fairy tale that has no qualms about claiming that status and reputation. Rather it embraces adventure, friendship and fearlessness, and it is hard to not be taken by the warmth that it was clearly made with.