We live in a strange cinematic era. Superhero movies are the top box office draw these days, mega blockbusters are commonplace and some of the most imaginative content out there seems more likely to appear on the small screen than the large one. In such an environment, legacy sequels to beloved franchises are something to be expected, but something has changed since the 80s and 90s. Like then, many of these sequels come to be due to corporate demand. Unlike then, many of these films are helmed by fans with a genuine love for the material. As a result, many legacy sequels today are surprisingly innovative and refreshing. One of the biggest surprises for me was Puss In Boots: The Last Wish.
Puss In Boots is the latest film in the Shrek franchise and the first film in over 11 years. It follows the title character (played by Antonio Banderas) who was first introduced all the way back in Shrek 2. Having spent eight of his nine lives, Puss sets out to restore them using the last wish of a magic fallen star, aided on his journey by an old flame named Kitty (Salma Hayek Pinault) and a bubbly therapy dog named Perrito (Harvey Guillen). Along the way, they must face off against Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her adoptive bear family, the greedy Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney), and a mysterious wolf assassin (Wagner Moura).
I was not excited for this film in the slightest, having lost interest in the series after the second Shrek movie, so when reviews came in and they were surprisingly good, it piqued my interest. Going to see the film, I was surprised at how well it managed to capture the magic of the first two films in the series, while also doing something unique to itself. This film is not just a good sequel. It’s a good movie that manages to tell a self-contained story good enough for its own series.
Of course, the film wouldn’t matter without its characters, and the cast here is overflowing with memorable personalities. Ensemble pieces like this are never easy, but the cast here, aided by some fine animation and stellar writing, never fails to stay fresh throughout the film. The three principal players are always a joy to watch, with Puss’ brash arrogance, and Kitty’s guarded cynicism causing them to constantly butt heads, bringing out Perrito’s undying optimism that somehow manages to hold the group together. Even side characters like Goldilocks and her adopted family are fun, managing to balance fast-paced humor with genuine sentimentality.
Banderas and Pinault deserve particular praise for their work. Despite having not played the character in over a decade, Banderas slips back into one of his most beloved roles with ease, almost as if the previous 11 years were nothing more than a rumor. He’s also given room to stretch himself as an actor, showing more vulnerable and contemplative sides to his character. Pinault is a perfect foil for the fearsome feline, playing a character far beyond a one-note live interest and instead carrying herself with agency and confidence. The lovers/rivals trope is a tired one that is often done to ill effect. In this film, the actors’ performances, aided by some stellar animation, make it feel new.
Then there’s the film’s animation style. CG animation has continued to evolve since the original Shrek, encompassing a wide variety of styles that are every bit as diverse and innovative as the 2D animation that came before it. An obvious inspiration for the animation here is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, which incorporated a stylized almost comic book look to its animation. Puss In Boots has similar moments, in particular, its fight sequences that are styled much like comic book panels. To have the look of the animation itself deviate from what came before was itself a bold choice, but it’s one more thing that helps set this feature apart from its predecessors.
When it comes to humor, the film manages to keep things fresh, playing off genre tropes in your typical hero past their prime tales. This goes a long way to make the film’s action scenes that much more lively and exciting. But along with that, the film has a darker edge in its jokes, mostly in the part of Jack Horner. Horner is a stereotypical greedy CEO who has everything in the world and still wants more. His journey to get it results in the grisly deaths of his employees, who suffer fates ranging from fatal falls to being devoured by flesh-eating plants.
The film also deals with some serious issues that will resonate perhaps even more with the film’s adult audience than the younger one. At its core the film is about a hero long past his prime who is struggling to accept both his age and his mortality. You’d think a film about a swashbuckling talking cat wouldn’t be the place to discuss such topics, and yet the film manages to deal with these ideas in a surprisingly mature and honest way, and I’d argue does so better than most allegedly adult films on the subject.
These ideas are explored primarily through the film’s main setting, an enchanted forest where the heroes must navigate to find the fallen wishing star. The setting changes according to whoever holds an enchanted map, with the map changing the forest to reflect the various neurosis. There are several strong character moments associated with this, from Perrito’s incarnation of the forest being happy and carefree, to a scene where Puss is forced to confront his lost eight lives and gets a sobering dose of his own arrogance. Not only that, it keeps the setting fresh, providing the characters with numerous pitfalls and challenges along the way, all set in an ever-changing landscape.
One of the most surprising things about the film is how self-contained it is. While not necessarily a bad thing, many sequels struggle to exist on their own, serving more as additions to the original than self-contained stories. Puss In Boots manages to avoid that, telling a story that’s well structured enough so that the previous films are entirely optional. While there are a few callbacks to previous films, there’s nothing here that makes this movie impossible to follow. I myself hadn’t seen any Shrek film since 2, including the original Puss In Boots film. Never once during this movie was I lost. Too many sequels rely purely on nostalgia to sell themselves. Puss In Boots is a rare exception. Watching this film in the theater, I was struck with the thought that this movie did need Shrek or any of the films that came before it. On its own, it was enough. That’s the difference between just a sequel and a movie.
Puss In Boots could have been a cynical cash grab from a creatively bankrupt studio looking to make a quick buck. Instead, those behind the film brought something you don’t see in a lot of sequels, and that’s a creative vision focused on forging its own identity rather than simply repeating what worked before. The result is a film that, despite being the 6th in a series, is unique, not just in its own franchise but in animation as a whole. It’s one of the best-animated films to come out in recent years and has the witty charm of such classics as The Princess Bride. It’s also that rare example of a true family film that can be enjoyed not just by the young, but by those of us who have grown up.
Like this article? Check out these similar pieces by some of our top contributors!
How ‘Puss in Boots’ Handles Death is Brilliant