Rollicking and surprisingly moving, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” eschews the idea that animation is for children and offers a sincere ode to living mindfully that will resonate with audiences of all ages. The latest installment in DreamWorks Animation’s long-running “Shrek” franchise smartly surrounds its titular hero with his own all-star ensemble, mature themes, and epic set-pieces. Brought to life with a vivid, painted animation style similar to recent films like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”(2018), the film soars in establishing its own fairytale aesthetic. Looking like a fable itself, the animation emphasizes the story’s core message; with Puss down to the last of his nine lives, he must learn to live in the present without fear.
While this theme may seem surprisingly heavy, it never bogs down the film’s short runtime. Opening with a bombastic celebration of Puss at his very best — throwing parties, redistributing wealth, and rescuing villagers — viewers find a hero basking in his own mythological status.
“Who is your favorite fearless hero?” Puss sings. “You are! You are!” the villagers respond. As the eponymous hero prances and dances his way through the first bit of action, the audience is invited to revel alongside him. This showmanship costs Puss his eighth life, while a run-in with the terrifying wolf, Lobo, moments later leaves him fearfully clutching onto his ninth, and final, life.
Afraid of both dying and failing to live up to his legend, Puss retreats to a cat retirement home, a sequence that drags down the otherwise energetic plot. The creative team, however, uses this time to introduce crucial side characters, including Perrito, an optimistic and entertaining sidekick, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a crime family searching for the mythical wishing star. Inspired to use the star’s wishing power to restore his lost lives, Puss seems nearly back to his normal self. After a daring escape from the evil magic collector Jack Horner, Puss unintentionally reunites with Perrito and Kitty Softpaws. A lesser script would feel overstuffed with all of these characters, but “The Last Wish” uses their flaws to reflect Puss’s.
Each character’s desires are perverted by the dynamic terrain protecting the elusive wishing star itself. It physically manifests each character’s internal struggle, creating a visual treat that spotlights the movie’s deeper themes. The tension between appreciating life as it is — like Perrito’s endlessly sunny outlook — and wishing for something more — like Goldilocks’s desire for a human family and Jack Horner’s for control — inform Puss’s own conflict. He wishes to abandon the mortality of his final life and return to the invincibility of having nine lives and the adoration that comes with it. The legend of Puss in Boots overshadows Puss himself, keeping him from expressing his feelings or relying on others.
Nowhere does this issue seem more relevant than in Puss and Kitty’s relationship. A flashback reveals Puss left Kitty at the altar on their wedding to continue his heroic escapades unencumbered. This fraught romantic relationship adds necessary complexity to Puss’s character and legend. Despite her introduction in the 2011 “Puss in Boots,” Kitty’s inclusion remains enjoyable and accessible, as this movie fleshes out their dynamic in sarcastic banter and one-upmanship. Underneath it all remains the potential that the two might reconcile or betray one another to secure the power of the wishing star. With Perrito’s help, however, they open up to one another and appreciate the time they get to spend together.
Lobo looms over Puss’s entire journey — the wolf, after all, is “Death. Straight up.” Sinister and seemingly omnipresent, his scenes are the most compelling in the movie. An apparently unstoppable force, Lobo is the only villain who truly forces Puss to face his fears. Having seen Puss handily dispatch any threat, Lobo’s first fight with Puss creates a legitimate threat as he quickly disarms the cat and becomes the first character to make the hero bleed. Because of this encounter, Lobo’s arrival in any other, portended by his iconic whistle, is enough to send Puss spiraling into a panic — one of the most considerate portrayals of an anxiety attack ever put to screen. As Puss realizes the value of the life he has left and the selfishness of his wish, he discovers the courage to face Lobo, a commendable resolution to his character arc.
Although the story may be predictable, it remains enjoyable for audiences of all ages. Also effective is the narrative’s presentation. Leaning away from realism, the film’s stylized aesthetic reflects the fairytale nature of Puss’s larger-than-life legend and lends visual flair to even the simplest scenes. Small flourishes and details elevate this movie above other animated features, including reduced frame rates in fights and visual emphases around Puss’s tap-dancing feet. Animation liberates the action, inviting dynamic camera angles and exaggerated movements impossible in any other medium.
Despite this exaggeration, the voice actors ground their characters’ struggles well. Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek reprise their roles as Puss and Kitty, clearly reigniting the chemistry of their will-they-won’t-they relationship. Their ability to slip between Spanish and English animates the dexterous script’s fun mashups, like Puss’s “Say hello to my gatito blade.” Wagner Moura’s Lobo is again a highlight. The actor employs an oddly weighted phrasing to accentuate his otherworldly and menacing presence. Every other member of the cast is stellar as well, guaranteeing each scene is a visual delight.
Almost every aspect of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” emphasizes the titular character’s struggle to value his mortality. The compelling vocal performances, evocative animation, and compelling script unite to create a movie that imparts a meaningful and accessible message for viewers of all ages. Not content with simply replicating their previous animation efforts, Dreamworks imbues Puss’s narrative journey with a style completely unique to the feisty feline. Here’s to wishing for more like “The Last Wish.”