Puss In Boots: The Last Wish
Down to his last of nine lives after a typically brash heroic escapade, the legendary Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) finds himself contemplating a less than glorious retirement, especially after a nasty encounter with a fearsome bounty hunter (Wagner Moura). But when he learns about an opportunity to renew his lives by finding a mythical fallen star, Puss, with “therapy dog” companion Perrito (Harvey Guillen) embarks on one last great quest, but plenty of others – “Goldi” (Florence Pugh) and her Three Bears gang, amoral magic obsessive Jack Horner (John Mulaney) and Puss’ old flame Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault) – are on the trail as well.
The Shrek franchise is something I loved at time of release but have come to disdain the father away I get from that seminal moment, which makes it all the more astonishing for me to declare that not only is this, a sequel to a spin-off that came out ten years ago, the best film in that franchise, it’s also one of DreamWorks’ best films ever. The lazy reference humour, the gross-out gags, the endless stream of memes that Shrek has been responsible for, it’s all been redeemed by Joel Crawford’s film, a production that marries a somewhat rote tale of going on a quest and learning to change, with a deadly serious examination of anxiety, self-reflection and, most importantly, a flat-out fear of death as an inevitability. I suppose if I were to think of The Last Wish as an extension of Shrek, we should consider how all these films have evolved overtime: a bachelor used to the lonely life finds someone to spend his life with; then deals with growing responsibilities; then the fear of being a father; then struggling with what being a father actually means. It’s about the only redeeming aspect of the larger franchise. Now Puss In Boots is getting in on the act, as we move, and with a suitable gap between productions, from a reckless, thrill-seeking playboy to a guy who is now thinking very seriously about how his life might end.
I mean, animation, even animation aimed primarily at kids, has tackled death before, but never quite like this I think. I suppose it might be a bit of a spoiler to reveal that Moura’s character, initially more of a Big Bad Wolf architype, is a personification of the Grim Reaper, but I think his scary appearance, obsession with ending Puss’ final life and use of scythes as a weapon might tip you off long before the character himself tells Puss that he “is Death, straight-up”. It’s with this recurring sub-plot, easily perceived as a narrative where a lonely and middle-aged Puss is contemplating what the end actually means, that The Last Wish soars into the stratosphere, and it doesn’t hurt that Death himself is as memorable a villain, if you consider him one, as they come, whose unrelenting hunt and lack of sympathy for Puss really marks him out.
But The Last Wish is a lot more than learning to accept death as something that will happen and that you shouldn’t live your life cringing in fear from it (is this really a kids movie?). There’s a lot more here that the adults in the room will undoubtedly be effected by: ruminations on not considering yourself worthy of being loved; a few shots at 1% types never satisfied with what they’ve got when other people still have scraps; and in one absolutely remarkable scene, a character having to work through a realistically portrayed panic attack, with barely a titter in sight. This is the franchise that brought us endless jokes about a donkey having sex with a dragon, but now it has us seeing our modern-day stressed filled selves in an anthropomorphic cat worried that he has wasted his life/lives and is living what’s left in Thoreau’s state of quiet desperation.
But there’s a lot more to enjoy other than that. The cast is great, with Banderas and Hayek Pinault so easily slipping back into these roles but joined by some stand-out vocal performances from the likes of Mulaney and Moura. Mulaney, as the entitled man-child that is Jack Horner, is especially having a ball, whether he is taking part in a well-intentioned parody of Mad Max: Fury Road or waxing lyrical to the “Ethical Bug” (a copyright-OK version of Jiminy Cricket, hilarious whenever on-screen) about how dead he is inside despite the “useless crap” of “loving parents and a successful business to inherit”. The film is funny, and not just in the tawdry way the Shrek movies tried to be (even when it goes scatological, it’s about Puss considering a litter tray “where dignity goes to die”): a montage where Puss outlines how he lost those previous eight lives is a total riot.
And we have to talk a bit about the animation of course. The quest for photorealism that has marked the period since Toy Story changed the game appears to be in danger of fizzling out, and The Last Wish is just the latest example of the trend. Using the so-called “stepped” style of reduced frame-rate that was catapulted to international prominence by Into The Spider-Verse, The Last Wish really captures the eye with this sort of quasi-stop motion effect for key action scenes, with the film briefly jumping from 3-D CGI to a sort of play on 2-D instead. It really helps the faster-paced material – and there are some doozies, not least Puss’ duel with a giant in the opening, or a kinetically pleasing heist sequence or a chase through a Skittle-coloured forest – pop loud. The western aesthetic is obvious, with plenty of nods to the likes of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, or even The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Add in Heitor Pereira’s fun score, and a never-ending sense that a great deal of care has been put into every frame of this film whether it is sequences or characters (seriously: every character in this films looks remarkably distinctive, an under-rated positive in animation) and you have yourself a fun production.
I’m not sure if the Shrek franchise more generally – and of course there are more coming, which the ending of The Last Wish nods towards – is worth saving but I would watch another one of these in a heartbeat. We’re past “Kids film with some jokes for adults” territory now, and into “Weighty treatises with some jokes for kids” or maybe we should acknowledge that there appear to be some studios, writers and directors who trust that the younger audience can handle this material, which is to be praised as an idea all of its own. The Last Wish looks fantastic, is acted well, combines the traditional narrative beats of the fantasy genre with some well-written and relevant subtext and in a time when you find one stand-out animation film for every ten that gets released, stands out in a hell of a way. A film of this type that encourages you to face Death bravely while acknowledging he always wins in the end is not to be dismissed easily. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).