If I were to have been quizzed on where every major animation house would stack up at year’s end, my guesses would have all been proven so wrong. Particularly with those groups that one would never expect much. Real talk: DreamWorks has always been hit-and-miss. But in a year where animated cinema went into interesting directions, the brightest surprises were with the studio not best known for them as of late. The Bad Guys saw the studio reinvent the crime caper with a glossy, zippy, pushed-in style reminiscent of a graphic novel. Anything they follow up with would have to continue that crusade, crafting a story energized by pure visual splendor that knows its influences. Be they modern anime, classical literature, or one of their greatest franchise triumphs. Or even all three.
An admittedly late-arriving sequel to a 2011 spinoff entry, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish sees one of Shrek’s prominent allies pulled back into focus, along with that frenzied fairy tale world he belonged in. Easily more so than the last time he was around; his origin story felt more like a flatlining direct-to-video release than a fully fleshed-out theatrical project. With enough time spent on generating a worthwhile story to rival the ogre’s madcap adventures, the sword-wielding, boot-wearing feline finally reaches heights befitting, then overwhelming his mystique.
Even the finest heroes must learn the hard way they’re mortal. Puss (Antonio Banderas) discovers after a scrape with a sleeping giant he is down to his ninth and final life. His first eight weren’t all wasted. They were adventurous to start, embarrassing to finish, occasionally involving either his recklessness or addiction to milk in a shot glass. Actions which this cat willingly brushes off, until he encounters a furry manifestation of death, a wolf in a black cape (Wagner Moura) warning him of his looming demise. Out of unbridled fear, he runs away, retires the hero moniker, and retreats to a quiet life with other domesticated cats. And one boisterous therapy dog in training named Perrito (Harvey Guillén), tagging along with annoying little brother energy.
It’s a fine arrangement until the virtue of surrender replaces itself with self-preservation. Criminal queenpin Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her three bears (Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Samson Kayo) are looking to extract any clues the lively cat might hold to a crashed wishing star, harboring enough power for one last implementation by way of map. Overhearing motives, Puss and Perrito spring to action, his chance at immortality assured. But not without inciting a mild Mad Mad Mad Mad World scenario with old rival Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault), and mob boss Jack Horner (John Mulaney) hot on their tails, alongside that ominous specter.
If there’s only one idea co-directors Joel Crawford (The Croods: A New Age) and Januel Mercado excel with from a script credited to Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow (The Grinch), it’s how their ensemble parlays utter madcap insanity. Not too far away from what the big green guy was known for. It’s a wild goose chase, for the sake of fulfilling a worn-out trope and then rejuvenating it from an existential perspective. Like Seventh Seal, but kid friendly. Its sense of mortal fear is undercut only by its razor-sharp humor, blisteringly self-referential with ease, deconstructing fairy tales and real-world dynamics with a giddy rapture.
Not at all an easy task when balancing ever-present fears of living, dying, committing, or finding friends. Sure, most family-aimed media wouldn’t shy from tackling these themes, let alone a DreamWorks feature. But I’d be hard-pressed to find them approached with such maturity or eloquence, as we do here. Speaking directly, intelligently, without looking down. It’s been some time since that could be so easily presentable. To see Crawford use comedy as a warmup tool, and not a crutch, while bravely speaking on relatable anxieties, there’s a fair deal of storytelling artistry in play.
Let that ring true as well for its striking, inimitable animation style. To see the Glendale-based outfit test limitations once considered rigid, even shatter them, is a hard-earned victory, stealing one’s eyes as quickly as the heart. With visual roots clearly grown out of the likes of Spider-Verse, Akira, Princess Kaguya, Golden Book art panels, and the already prevalent avenues of those familiar bedtime yarns, Last Wish navigates territory that, for now, might be unparalleled. So much, to the point, that one forgets we’re seeing CG. We’re merely looking at painterly art, the form of which only modern animation could give motion, and bridge full unity between reality and fantasy. At no time does any landscape disassociate from either bracket. Worlds blend so fluidly, alertly, yet with the space to roam untethered, often as chaotically as the characters whose pawprints leave firm indents.
And that is often what one would get with an animated ensemble of this variety and candor. Unbridled chaos to match the material, and then some. Crawford and company hone substantial flair out of their cast, all of them the right fit for their roles. The returning Banderas and Hayek overwhelmingly surpass their prior performances of over a decade ago, crossing familiar beats with a stronger emotional reverence. Meanwhile, Pugh is a steady compass of off-cuff hubris, letting loose with unending guile. Both Colman and a transformative Mulaney (in his first honest villain part) provide a bevy of upscale class. But it’s Guillén, the darling scene-stealer of What We Do in the Shadows who effortlessly owns this adventure. On the surface, it’s an unfiltered source of comic relief whose quirks don’t all land the same way. The right actor can steer forward unhampered, injecting a lovable heart without realizing it. Guillén accomplishes just that in untiring supply, often outpacing his cohorts on physicality alone. Dog-like, to an astonishing degree.
This entire venture, at a tidy 90 minutes-plus, looked, sounded, and felt like a most astonishing feat. A mindblower, in the grand scheme of DreamWorks’ last ten or so years of work, exceptions notwithstanding. And an easy bar-raiser, among the company of those who looked beyond the norm. Both Crawford and Banderas seize this moment without effort wasted, restoring both a classic character and his universe of residence to a state of greatness. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is, in no small terms, an animated triumph, venturing back to a familiar place from a mature, metaphysical, and style-heavy lens. Eager to win the mind, soul, and funny bone all at once, its joyful nature is worthy of families’ attention this holiday. And easily mine as well, knowing I couldn’t wait to revisit its wayfaring, fearless, boot-rocking charm. Mercy, and purpose, achieved. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish opens in theaters December 21; rated PG for action/violence, rude humor/language, and some scary moments; 102 minutes.