Moviegoers shouldn’t have to rely on a sequel to a Shrek spinoff from 11 years ago to discover dazzling spectacle, but here we are. Just days after Avatar: The Way of Water finessed and stretched the photoreal CG language of James Cameron’s original to greater heights (depths?), a frickin’ Puss in Boots movie swings the action pendulum in the complete opposite stylistic direction, while remaining on Cameron’s audacious wavelength. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, the latest DreamWorks Animation film, steals mercilessly from the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse playbook, and you know what, thank god for it — the result is a fairy tale adventure that complements genuine laughs with splashy, impressionistic art.
I have absolutely no memory of what happened in 2011’s Puss in Boots, nor the Netflix show The Adventures of Puss in Boots, but am happy to report a lack of Puss knowledge did not negatively impact my time watching an Antonio Banderas-voiced cat scurry around with his sword. When we pick up with Puss, he’s a milk-drunk legend realizing he’s wasted eight of his nine lives. Wolf, a physical manifestation of death who wields two scythes and is voiced by Narcos’ Wagner Moura, could not be happier — all he wants is to cut down the arrogant feline as he begs for mercy. But when Puss catches wind of a fallen star capable of granting a wish, he sets off with Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and a tiny dog named Perrito (What We Do in the Shadows’ Harvey Guillén) to seize the opportunity. On his fluffy tail are Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her Three Bears Crime Family, and the Shrek-verse’s version of the Collector, “Big” Jack Horner (John Mulaney), who also want the star.
Talks of a Puss in Boots 2 began just after the first movie’s success. Executive producer Guillermo del Toro teased in 2012 that a script was already in the works, and by 2014, Banderas was making promises about the character’s return — possibly alongside Shrek. None of this came to pass, and DreamWorks saw creative-team shakeups. Eventually Joel Crawford (The Croods: A New Age) stepped in to helm the movie, with Januel Mercado as co-director, with the MO of completely rethinking what a CG-animated movie had to look like at DreamWorks.
“When the Shrek movies came out, CG animation was in an interesting space,” Last Wish production designer Nate Wragg recently told Animation Magazine. “Part of the spectacle of it was, ‘Wow it looks so real, even though it’s not. Look what the computer can do.’ We’ve now been able to swing the pendulum back into a space where animation originated, which was an artistic expression. Bambi’s backgrounds were watercolored. It was beautiful but it didn’t have to be photoreal.”
As an animation fan, this has been a long time coming. Spider-verse’s arrival in 2018 felt like a bullet-speed pebble lodging itself in the windshield of mainstream Western animation. The cracks were immediate, and between DreamWorks’ The Bad Guys, Netflix’s Arcane, and Pixar’s upcoming Elemental, the rules might be fully shattered. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish giving the crude Shrek franchise a facelift in every imaginable way is a reason to hope.
The Last Wish is the closest I’ve ever seen a movie get to emulating hand-painted concept art. On their way to the wishing star, Puss and company traverse prismatic backdrops — from bright pinks and green forests to the rustic interiors of a cat-lady prison — that feel dabbed on by the artistic team. Their encounters with beasties use color, linework, and kinetic camera moves to bring viewers deeper into the battles, and like The Way of Water, regularly shift frame rates to jolt the senses. Puss, looking more oil-painted than ever, may be monologuing about his legendary skills one second, animated “on the ones,” then find himself in a cacophonous skirmish with a towering troll the next, which the team animates “on the twos.” The sensation builds on the work of Spider-verse and drags the Shrek franchise, of all things, into the territory of high art. It’s stunning.
The movie’s also really funny? Having recently revisited Shrek 1 and Shrek 2, I can’t say I walked into The Last Wish with an open heart/funny bone — pop culture hijinks and fairy-tale riffs were dusty then and petrified now. The Last Wish team, including credited screenwriters Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow, reinvent the humor just like the animation. While the movie offers a few nostalgic nods to Shrek, with brief appearances by Gingerbread Man and Pinocchio, and Jack Horner’s endless supply of fantasy literature collectibles gives Mulaney plenty of joke fuel, the movie’s comedy stylings more closely resemble Groundhog Day. Banderas, it turns out, can do the Bill Murray mumbles-to-self one-liner thing. A recurring bit finds Puss reliving his past deaths, and the versions of himself (Showman Puss, Swole Puss, Drunk Puss) that led to each demise. In this sequel, a somewhat obligatory poop joke is actually a litter box joke about Puss faking his own death and “burying” his body. Good!
The Last Wish might just be the best thing DreamWorks Animation, a studio that isn’t as known for pushing the limits of the medium, has produced in the last decade. 2010 gave us the emotional thrillride of How to Train Your Dragon and 2011 had Kung Fu Panda 2, a martial arts odyssey bursting with imagination that asserted director Jennifer Yuh Nelson as a top-tier action director (even if Hollywood never made good on it). Maybe How to Train Your Dragon 2 tops the original with bigger action — I’ll leave that to the hardcore fans. The Bad Guys was definitely a step in the right technological direction earlier this year. I will not be engaging with Boss Baby discourse.
Whatever the case, the achievement glimmers with hope. DreamWorks Animation, a studio that has bounced from various homes, never found its footing against Pixar, and struggled in the shadow of the Minions, may have found a new mode. If this level of artistry and cleverness is what the studio brings to future films, hell, I will get in line for Shrek 5. There is so much animation can do, and Hollywood finally seems ready to grant its artists permission to do it.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is now in theaters