“Shrek” was the film that put DreamWorks Animation on the map and, for better or worse, convinced an entire industry to switch their attention from the old world charm of hand-drawn children’s films to the modern frontier of CGI animation. The sequel, “Shrek 2,” introduced something even more important: The Antonio Banderas-voiced, Zorro-inspired Puss in Boots, a swashbuckling ginger cat with a tiny sword, a smart pair of boots, and an adorable pair of enormous kitten eyes. He got his own movie in 2011 after the main Shrek quadrilogy was finished, and its long-awaited follow-up, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” finally debuts this year.
Puss in Boots (Banderas) has spent a lifetime performing daring deeds and laughing in the face of death. Eight lifetimes, in fact: after a particularly heroic battle, Puss finds out that he’s used up almost all of his nine lives, and only has one left. He’s not truly concerned, though, until he comes nose-to-nose with the Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura), a cloaked bounty hunter wielding two scythe blades who has never allowed a wanted criminal to escape. During Puss’s search for safety, he comes across Guy Ritchie-esque crime family Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, and Samson Kayo) who are hunting down the map to a legendary wishing star that fell to Earth long ago.
With the help of the sweet yet buffoonish Perrito (Harvey Guillen) and Puss’s old flame Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), Puss embarks on a quest to find the star and wish for all his lives back, hounded at every turn by the bears, the Wolf, and magic-obsessed mafioso Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney) of the plum pie nursery rhyme.
“The Last Wish” continues the Shrek franchise’s tongue-in-cheek penchant for throwing popular fairy tale characters into the same world and seeing what comes out. Pugh voices Goldilocks with a gruff “oi oi” London drawl and Mulaney is a treat as violent manchild Jack, darkly intoning the nursery rhyme’s catchphrase “What a good boy am I” at a pivotal moment in the film. The Wolf is particularly frightening as an almost literal personification of Puss’s deep-seated fear of death, appearing out of dark corners with glowing red eyes and a sinister whistle that makes the cat’s fur stand on end.
DreamWorks’ animation department (for which “The Last Wish” debuts a brand-new logo honoring the studio’s most popular characters) has long been one of the more underrated in terms of trying out new styles and aesthetics from film to film (the “Boss Baby” franchise notwithstanding), and “The Last Wish” has a particularly fun blend of standard computer imagery combined with the sketchy look of hand-drawn animation and the fast-paced flip-book style fight choreography popularized by “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
Perhaps what makes “The Last Wish” a cut above the rest is the deftness with which it eases the audience into the Lesson of the Day format of most animated children’s movies. Ultimately, Puss’s desire to be free from death keeps him from enjoying his life — a somewhat darker concept than one usually finds in children’s media, especially geared towards an audience as young as this film’s. It never, however, plasters whatever it has to say all over the screen, allowing story beats to unfold naturally and in surprising ways. Goldilocks’ secret reason for pursuing the wishing star is particularly unexpected, yet it fits, and it’s handled with grace. “The Last Wish” has no qualms about testing the expectations of its young audience while delivering a freewheeling tale about appreciating the nine lives we already have.
Dreamworks will release “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” in theaters on Wednesday, December 21.