Puss in Boots: The Last Wish Finds Mortal Masculine Maturity

Images courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

Compared to other animated heroes, the dauntless Puss in Boots is quite the charismatic catch. The marmalade-colored tabby cat has caballero swagger for days and a swordsman’s courage inside those ebony wellingtons and underneath his wide-brimmed, feather-crested hat. Lest we forget, he’s got those eyes–oh my, those eyes– and the soothing rasp of Antonio Banderas modulating his every word. Hubba hubba! What more could you want?

The answer is, quite unexpectedly, character depth beyond the easy archetype. Storytellers like those making the long-distance sequel Puss in Boots: The Last Wish could very easily have left the character born from the centuries-old Giovanni Francesco Straparola fairy tale ageless like Mickey Mouse. Instead, we have a mirthful movie that dares to dangle introspective yarn balls of fear, mortality, trust, friendship, and more towards our devil-may-care feline and the movie’s eager audience.

A cat thrusts his rapier into the ground.
Images courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

To quote the well-worn expression used in many frank judgments of character, “I didn’t think he had it in him.” Be ready to color yourself surprised. Thanks to heightened stakes and those aforementioned honest themes, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish gallops beyond the flashy shell of a cash grab sequel opportunity for Dreamworks Animation. This valuable new journey massages and improves the mettle of this excellent character without losing a whisker of derring-do.

In the years since we last saw him, Puss in Boots has enjoyed the perks and pitfalls of the outlaw lifestyle. Slurping his leche and singing of his own legend, Puss is celebrated by his adoring proletariat public while still being very much a wanted man. When an opening skirmish ends with him crushed by a falling church bell, the local doctor (lucious Jane the Virgin narrator Anthony Mendez) informs Puss that he is on the last of his nine lives and recommends immediate retirement.

A woman holds up a wanted poster while a bear holds up a cat in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
Images courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

After receiving this diagnosis and wellness prescription, the cocky gato who laughs in the face of danger meets The Big Bad Wolf (The Gray Man’s Wagner Moura), whistling and stalking bounties with his twin sickles. After losing a sword fight to the lupine Grim Reaper smelling his fresh fear, Puss jarringly realizes his fragile mortality and flees. He buries his trademark costume– feeling he is no longer worthy– and joins Mama Luna’s (Da’Vine Joy Randolph of Dolemite is My Name) rescue house to seek obscurity interrupted often by a discarded clinger dog (Harvey Guillén of What We Do in the Shadows).

Using the anonymous classic poem “Star light, star bright” as a catalyst, this animated Shrek realm contains the remnants of a fallen star protected by a dark forest. An individual guided by a magical map to this exotic destination will be granted the star’s single Last Wish. The greedy and hopeful have sought this myth for years, including the brutish collector of magic items “Big” Jack Horner (comedian John Mulaney).

A large man smiles towards a phoenix bird.
Images courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

The butt-of-a-nursery-rhyme-joke’s newest pursuit brings new and old adversaries out of the woodwork. Former flame Kitty Softpaws (Banderas’ Desperado squeeze Salma Hayek Pinault) and the crime family of Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, and Samson Kayo) all seek the map and its advertised promise. Their entry and Puss’s own chance at gaining back his lost lives pulls the titular hero back into the scamper for the star.

All of these reunited rival thieves share tenuous familiarity. In this crowd, the warranted insufficient trust guards each against betrayal and prevents genuine friendships. However, as we all know, “you have to trust somebody,” just as the movie loves to state. Sanding away the competitive jealousy, especially between Kitty and Puss, becomes an essential step of growth for the protagonists.

A cat is wearing a hat, boots, and guitar in front of a spotlight in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
Images courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

Thanks to a flamenco-tinged score from Brazilian composer and guitar virtuoso Heitor Pereira (the Despicable Me series) for Puss and Boots: The Last Wish, the spirited “holy frijoles” energy of the returning character has not diminished since 2011. New thrills and spills bring forth a peppy soundtrack of songs to fit the up-and-down moods of given moments, like Banderas crooning the original “Fearless Hero” to announce his presence or Dan Navarro’s sly Spanish cover of “The End” by The Doors telegraphing the retirement epiphany.

The stick-sword (you’ll see in the movie) that stirs the drink of this sequel is still Antonio Banderas. His vocal braggadocio has ample room to still poke the drama necessary of his character’s crisis of mortality. He is joined by a very game supporting cast. Moura will spook you and Mulaney hits the right vile notes as heavies. Between Puss and Boots: The Last Wish and The Mitchells vs. The Machines last year, it’s a treat to see a decorated serious actress like Olivia Colman embrace animation opportunities. She and Winstone bring their chatty cockney to Pugh’s Oxford English and make a pleasant trio of banter.

A cat points a sword at a foe.

Without beating an agenda into the ground, the story and screenplay team of Tommy Swerdlow (The Grinch), Tom Wheeler (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), and Paul Fisher (The Lego Ninjago Movie), along with director Joel Crawford (The Croods: A New Age) and co-director Januel P. Mercado, push back more than a little vain masculinity inherent inside of Puss in Boots. We’ve got a character who has stopped to see himself and re-examine how others see him as well. That character can still choose manliness as a core, but improve it in several distinguishing ways (other than growing a beard that window-dresses newfound real maturity).

This final lesson is one of those ways. Out of everyone chasing the Last Wish, it’s the naive little dog– sauntering in no hurry whatsoever with bad guys on his tail– that gets the simple truth. He has friends that did not require magic or a wish to gain. Being with them is fulfillment enough. This happiness without wishes is a factual reminder for the over-driven characters of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. That appreciation for life is an ideal message for viewers too and can create more zest than any slashing and clanging of blades.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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