Review: ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ (memento mori)

So many antagonists; so little time.

After his latest derring-do, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) learns he has squandered eight of his nine lives, and any swashbuckled misstep could spell curtains for the legendary outlaw. Convinced to hang up his cape and stow his beloved boots in exchange for an early retirement, a chance to restore his lost lives launches Puss on what could be his final adventure. With an unwanted but trustworthy companion (Harvey Guillén) and his former romantic interest Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), Puss must reach his goal ahead of Goldilocks (Florence Pugh), her three bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, and Samson Kayo), and a not-so little Jack Horner (John Mulaney), but his real fear is The Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura), an experienced hunter by trade whose interest is more than a mere bounty.

Since his first appearance in Shrek 2, Puss in Boots has been in every following Shrek adventure, his own prequel movie, a short film plus a television series. One would think there had been another full-length film since 2011, but considering Shrek Forever After was the last appearance of the fairy tale gang in 2010, a decade has passed. Sporting a new Dreamworks logo (and reminding audiences that The Bad Guys was a big hit earlier this year), rumors of a fifth Shrek film positions The Last Wish as a tasty appetizer. Co-directors Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado have all the latest animation tools at their disposal, but is the interest still there for a fractured fairy tale cat on his last leg?

With an unmistakable nod to Sergio Leone and wallowing in Spaghetti Western tropes, The Last Wish is surprisingly solid and perhaps the best entry in the Shrek universe to date. The hair-raising off-screen whistling of The Wolf moments before his appearance has its roots in any number of Westerns, most recently by the villain Negan and his followers in “The Walking Dead.” Juggling an ensemble of characters and tapping into darker themes — including actual blood in a PG animated flick — even the animation ups the ante in a stylized way reminiscent of Kung Fu Panda’s edits. Juggling so many protagonists, antagonists, and subplots would be a chore for any director(s), but common themes coupled with a tight script and vivid characterizations make it look effortless.

Banderas’ Puss is the best of his career characters all magnified into a single wonderful entity, and Salma Hayek remains his perfect foil as Kitty. Heroes are only as good as their villains, however, and a trio of heavies herein are each their own treat. Florence Pugh’s Goldi appears like a Cockney-accented throwaway until her repartee with the three bears adds complexity and empathy; Mulaney’s Jack Horner revels in his villainy, giving Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik a run for his money. Harvey Guillén’s “perro” is a warm and fuzzy scene-stealer, but Moura’s Wolf manages to upstage everyone, casting a solemn shadow over the entire story as the perfect nemesis for Puss.

With a brisk runtime and something for everyone, the timing of the release for The Last Wish is no accident; it’s only real competition in the animation award space is Dreamworks’ adaptation The Bad Guys (with Sam Rockwell as The Big Bad Wolf) unless there’s an upset by either Guillermo del Toro’s fascist-fighting Pinocchio or A24’s darling Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. With apologies to both Disney and del Toro, The Last Wish arguably owns this year’s most tolerable Pinocchio appearance, especially coupled with Kevin McCann’s dead-on Jimmy Stewart-esque “Ethical Bug.” Counting our blessings, thank the movie gods Roberto Benigni didn’t release another Pinocchio this year.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is rated PG for action/violence, rude humor/language, some scary moments, and I never do this, but can I get your autograph? Been following you for a long time…

Four skull recommendation out of four

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