Last Year’s Biggest Surprise Swaggers onto Home Media
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was perhaps the most improbably great movie in all of 2022. I mean, think about it: Over the course of a decade, the Shrek franchise managed to exhaust every last scrap of goodwill engendered by the first and second film by the time Shrek Forever After limped onto screens in 2010. Then, just when the culture at large seemed utterly exhausted by this brand of riff on Happy Ever After, a year later comes a spinoff movie, Puss in Boots. And, surprisingly, it was a totally enjoyable adventure movie, fresher and bolder and funnier than it would seem to have any right to be.
Cut to ELEVEN years later. Shrek is a relic, the emerald embodiment of a style of animation and humor that has been left behind. The fact that there was a Puss in Boots spinoff movie is a largely forgotten trivia fact. Dredging that world and these characters back for another round of fairy tale lampooning shenanigans wasn’t so much scraping the bottom of the barrel, it was dumping acid into the barrel and watching the acid melt into the very ether of the earth.
So what to do with the fact that, yes, eleven years after the original Puss in Boots movie and twenty-two years after the original Shrek movie, Puss in Boots: The Last Samurai arrived and isn’t just good, it’s actually great? It’s funny and moving and exciting and scary and boasts some of the most striking animation we’ve seen from any studio in a post-Spider-Verse world.
Man, even knowing how they did that…how did they actually do that?
Directed by Joel Crawford, Puss in Boots: The Last Dragon opens with the titular swashbuckling feline (voiced once again by Banderas) living his life to the fullest. Stealing from the rich, giving to the poor, battling people-eating giants, having a dang good time doing, what more could an anthropomorphic outlaw cat ask for? But when his duel with the giant results in Puss’s sudden demise, he awakens to the discovery that he may indeed have lived life a little too fully: Cats, as we all know, have nine lives. Scientific fact. And our Puss has used up eight, leaving him with only one final go-round before he is shuffled off the mortal coil for good.
(The explanation of what happened to the previous eight lives is an extremely funny early joke that also tips the movie’s hand towards the vein of genuine darkness that will be mined for the remainder of the film.)
Puss initially tries to continue swaggering through his remaining life, only for an encounter with a truly terrifying bounty hunter, Lobo (Wagner Moura) to leave him reeling, grappling with mortality for the first time in any of his lives. Puss initially tries to go to ground and remove himself from any and all danger, but it’s not long before he’s drawn into a quest for a legendary fallen star, said to grant whoever finds it one wish.
The chase quickly expands to include Puss’s rival/love interest Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek-Pinault, returning from the first Puss movie), a fledgling crime family fronted by Golidlocks and the three bears (voiced by Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, and Samson Kayo), and “Big” Jack Horner (John Mulaney), who has been collecting magical weaponry for years to overcompensate for the fact that he’s a character from a nursery rhyme rather than a fairy tale. And a lame as hell nursery rhyme at that.
Written out like that, it’s easy to mistake Puss in Boots: The Last Starfighter for just another installment of smug, celebrity-voiced, pop culture self-devouring pastiche. I mean come on, a bunch of colorful rogues chasing after various magical MacGuffins, colliding for a set-piece roughly every twenty or so minutes? This thing is one sky-beam short of hitting every cliché in the book, and this is a franchise that literally OPENED with its titular protagonist wiping his ass with that exact book.
SomeBODY once told me, indeed.
But execution makes all the difference. For starters, there is that animation, about which enough good cannot be said. While not completely abandoning the established look and visual language of the previous movies, Puss in Boots: The Last Unicorn is elastic where they were plastic, lush where they were flat, bursting at the seams with energy and invention in all the places where the previous Shrek films, and most previous CG films period, were mired in dull limitations. The Spider-Verse influence is pronounced throughout, especially in the various fight and action sequences where frame-skipping and cell-shading make the characters appear to vibrate off the screen. But the movie also incorporates the aesthetics of anime, video games, and traditional hand-drawn animation to arrive at a look that feels wholly unique even at a moment when Spider-Verse’s breakthroughs are breaking out all across the field.
Regardless of what is happening on screen, it is always a pleasure to be watching it.
Thankfully, Puss in Boots: The Last of Us isn’t just a sequence of pretty pictures. The script (credited to Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow) is genuinely clever and funny, with a strain of dark humor that may have parents gasping even as jokes fly over the heads of the younger viewers.
(I haven’t discussed him much, but one of the major additions to this sequel is a happy-go-lucky mutt voiced by What We Do In the Shadows standout, Harvey Guillén. The backstory of this adorably ugly little sidekick is such an unbelievably dark joke that even on repeated viewings I still cannot believe it was included.)
And tying the whole room together is a sincere theme of dealing with mortality, coping with anxiety, and figuring out how to get the most out of life. Banderas has always, Always, ALWAYS over-delivered in this role, effortlessly flexing his ability to slide from goofy/giddy silliness to powerhouse gravitas at a moment’s notice. Here, he brings the full weight of his talents to portray Puss at the twin extremes of Bruce Campbell-ian blowhard and emotional trainwreck, and all the stages in-between. He and Hayek-Pirault have demonstrated their chemistry for decades now, and their give and take is better written and played than the romantic banter in 90% of live action American mainstream films. I don’t know if that speaks to how good Puss in Boots: The Last Tycoon is, or to how much live action cinema has dropped that particular ball, but either way, these cats remain a joy to watch.
The newcomers all get plenty of opportunities to shine, particularly Guillén, who proves to be every bit as endearing and funny as a voice actor as he is in live action. Pugh, Colman, Winstone, and Kayo are a whole lot of fun as warped versions of Goldilocks and the bears, and Mulaney is just…weird. Jack Horner is a genuinely disturbing creation, and Mulaney seems palpably delighted to sink his teeth into every new freakish dimension of his villain.
And special shout-out must be paid to Wagner Moura as Lobo, one of the best villains in an animated film in…years? Decades, even? Everything about Lobo is captivating, from his design to his movements to his silhouette, and Moura’s performance brings the whole creation together for an antagonist who is never anything short of riveting to watch.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish really is the proverbial That Good. Like the other recent triumphs in the animated space, it serves as not only an excellent film in its own right, but as a gauntlet thrown to any other studio in the game. If the second Puss in Boots movie (and the SIXTH Shrek movie) can be this excellent, this inventive, this gorgeous, if it can contain this much artistry and heart and innovation, then what the hell excuse does anyone else have?
It becomes, then, the best kind of great movie. The kind that actively dares you to do even better.
I can’t wait to see how that challenge is answered by animated films down the line. But while we wait, we can always just watch Puss in Boots: The Last Wish a few more times.