Yes, it’s true that Dreamworks Animation has had to live in the shadow of Pixar Animation studios for some time. But I truly think audiences tend to underestimate them. The first two Shrek movies are terrific. The entire How to Train Your Dragon trilogy is a masterpiece (one of the few film trilogies ever where all entries are fantastic). And even the Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar franchises are well done. It seems the impact great filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro and Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois has indeed (much like the fearless feline protagonist of the film this review is for) left an indelible mark. Because case in point, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is surprisingly quite good.
This year, we had two Dreamworks Animation releases, two Pixar releases, and one recent Disney Feature Animation release. And while one of the animated films released by Disney and/or Pixar was actually very good (thank you, Domee Shi), the rest were arguably forgettable. Whereas Dreamworks Animation delivered two out of two rather good movies with the clever and hilarious The Bad Guys and now the surprisingly mature and charming Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. So yes. This year Dreamworks Animation beat Disney and Pixar! This hasn’t happened since 2011 when Pixar released the less-than-stellar Cars 2 and Disney released the cute but forgotten Winnie the Pooh, while Dreamworks released two Oscar nominees, Kung Fu Panda 2 and, coincidentally, the first Puss in Boots.
So enough comparisons. Let’s get to the movie shall we? Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is actually a better movie than its Oscar nominated predecessor (d’oh! That’s a comparison!), and surprisingly, one of the best animated movies of the year. It’s a lot more mature, and the characters are a lot better developed, but it’s actually a lot funnier too. In fact, the Shrek franchise hasn’t been this good since Shrek 2. So much so that by the time this film ended, I actually was excited for the prospect of more, which hasn’t happened since the early days of the franchise.
In the film, following a daring battle with a massive giant, Puss loses the eighth of his nine lives. While at first this doesn’t phase him, knowing he’s down to his final life, we see the hero do something he’s never done before during a seemingly random bar fight: run away in fear. His life is suddenly forfeit. And he has to do whatever he can to ensure he doesn’t permanently die. So he decides to bury his boots, and live his final life in retirement as a common housecat. But thanks to the presence of a few new villains including Goldilocks and the Three Bears (the terrific Florence Pugh, Olivia Coleman, Ray Winstone, and Samson Kayo), and
Little Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney), Puss’s retirement is cut short, as he must team up with some new and old friends (Harvey Guillen and Salma Hayek) to go after a precious wishing star in the middle of The Dark Forest.
The first thing you’ll immediately notice about the movie is that the animation style is actually very different from anything we’ve seen in the Shrek franchise. In fact it’s a little jarring. It feels a lot more reminiscent of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Bad Guys than the previous films in the franchise. But it feels fresh: like a fairy tale storybook or comic book come to life. It doesn’t diminish the excitement when to comes to the action sequences. In fact, on the contrary, it makes them feel a lot more dynamic, impactful, and fun. It does however, admittedly, feel a little less expensive than the previous installments. But if this did have a smaller budget than any of the other Shrek films, at least they’re imbuing it with a lot of style. And overall, it works!
But style would be nothing without substance. And the best thing about The Last Wish is that it’s effectively an existential crisis story. And for a Shrek movie that’s actually quite deep. Puss, and even other characters throughout this movie, face complete crises of identity, direction, and desire. When Puss’ own mortality is called into question, he spirals like any human would, going into fits of depression and questioning existence, meaning, and purpose. And even once he sets out to pursue the wishing star with his friends, he’s still unsure about what it is he wants. The important thing the character naturally has to discover is that the mortality of life is what gives life meaning. So how do we make the most of it? And that’s absolutely a question and lesson we’re faced with every single day as humans. It’s a theme we would expect from Disney or Pixar, and we’re instead getting it from a sequel to a spin-off of the Shrek franchise. How crazy is that?
The movie does terrific work with introducing new characters into this world as well. Pugh, Coleman, Winstone, and Kayo are a wonderfully hilarious team, with particularly tender moments throughout the movie. Mulaney gives an energetically deranged performance as Jack Horner. And Hayek once again brings so much gusto to the role of Kitty Softpaws, who was the MVP of the previous film. Banderas is, of course, wonderful, adding spirited humor and more complexity to Puss in ways we haven’t seen yet. But the film belongs to two performances: Wagner Moura, who is blood-curdling as the terrifying Big Bad Wolf, and surprisingly, Guillen, who is so funny and charming as Perrito, a wannabe therapy dog in a cat costume. Moura’s Big Bad Wolf is a different iteration than the more comedic cross-dressing character we’ve seen in the previous Shrek films. This is a terrifying villain for the movie, from the character’s whistling to his double scythes. His menacing presence, looming threat, and the exciting fight sequences he has with Puss make him one of the most terrifying animated villains we’ve seen on screen in years.
On the opposite side of the Shrek-trum, is Guillen’s Perrito: this film’s MVP. Here’s hoping that, like Kitty Softpaws, the character sticks around for future films. This character could have been incredibly obnoxious, but the depth and terrific, optimistic performance of Guillen instead make him a sweet, hilarious, and welcome addition to the Shrek franchise. There are literally laugh out loud moments where the character fully starts obliviously cursing (censored of course) at different points in the movie. It’s just incredibly funny. His bright and hopeful innocence, especially in the face of the tragedies he describes in his backstory, make him the perfect counterpart for Puss in this particular story about appreciating and making the most of the life you have.
The character work in the film is actually very interestingly done, as each of the characters represent various foils for Puss that highlight the emotional growth he has to achieve to conquer the struggles of his existential crisis. Perrito represents how his mindset needs to be in order to carry on through the frustrating reality of life being short. Goldi’s parallel journey symbolizes Puss’ need to appreciate the life he already has. Kitty represents the wasted opportunities for happiness he left behind as a result of fear in complacency. Horner represents the dangers that can come from someone who doesn’t appreciate all of the good fortune he has in front of him, and how that could turn one into a spoiled monster who only ever seeks more and more. He also has some really hilarious moments, particularly in a terrific Pinocchio-type parody involving a Jimmy Stewart-esque bug conscience. In short, the use of all these other characters to help define Puss makes all this pretty layered for a kid’s movie.
That being said, the movie is not without its flaws. Some might find it annoying that it is a “get a MacGuffin to get another MacGuffin before someone gets to the final MacGuffin” story. It’s all merely just a surface-level vessel to tell this deeper story about life, death, and existentialism. But it’s just a labored and cliched way to do it.
Additionally, the film has a tendency to be incredibly repetitive. There’s a chase to get to a MacGuffin before the bad guys. There’s a moment where everyone gets to the MacGuffin at the same time. There’s a battle. The good guys wind up with the MacGuffin and everyone continues to chase them. They meet up again and do a bigger battle, etc, etc. This happens about three times in the film, and it’s generally okay for them to do this, because again, the fights are exciting, the animation is stylish, and the characters are rich. But it does create predictability, making each subsequent battle feel a little stale, while lowering the stakes a bit more. The film is lucky that it still manages to retain its stakes because of menacing presences like Moura’s wolf character. But if the film were longer, and continued the same pattern for an additional 20 minutes, I don’t know if I’d be as kind to it as I am in its current state.
That being said, while Puss in Boots: The Last Wish may not be perfect, it is really fun, hilarious, and thematically rich. The voice cast is terrific, particularly the scene-stealing Guillen, and the writing is funny, clever, and charming, with shades of the Shrek franchise of yore. It’s a huge improvement over its predecessor, and surprisingly, I fully predict it will be one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year. Its colorful, stylish, action-packed animation will entertain and stimulate the kids, while the deeper messages about appreciating the only life we have, flaws and all, will resonate with adults. What could have been an easy cash grab, has simply turned out to be something much more charming. And because of this, for the first time since 2004, if another film were to come in the Shrek cinematic universe, I’d be glad to return to the kingdom of Far Far Away.
Overall Score: B+