Avoiding Cat-astrophe — Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
I fully admit that I have soured on the franchise ever since Shrek the Third. The first film was innovative, silly, and was a great update for big kids like me to the old “Fractured Fairy Tales” segments from reruns of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show that ran constantly on Nickelodeon in the 80s and 90s. The sequel one-upped everything that made the first movie great, and added some unexpectedly wonderful new elements, including a staunch reinforcement of Shrek and Fiona’s love for one another, Jennifer Saunders belting out “Holding Out for a Hero,” and the debut of Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots, who instantly became an audience favorite.
From there, however, it was all downhill. The third and fourth movies in the main canon were abject crap, and Puss’ spinoff adventure was annoying in the extreme, save for the love-hate relationship with Kitty Softpaws, voiced by Salma Hayek. So you can imagine my trepidation when a sequel, The Last Wish, was announced, more than a decade after the previous failure. While the world anxiously awaits Shrek 5 for reasons known but to God and the Dreamworks shareholders, this stopgap had all the earmarks of yet another cynical cash grab, only without the advantage of the franchise being active in our cultural zeitgeist.
After seeing it (now that it’s officially been submitted to the Academy and been nominated for a Golden Globe), I can say that there are a lot of things in this movie that simply don’t work, many that shouldn’t have even been attempted. But beyond that, there are some good bits that on balance outweigh the bad, and given the target audience of little, little kids, it’s alright. It shouldn’t win any awards, but if you’re looking for an entry in this series that isn’t just a string of tired pop culture references, it’ll serve as a nice distraction. If nothing else, it ends up in the top half of the Shrek universe simply by default.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first just so we can ensure a more pleasant taste in our collective mouths when this is all said and done. First and foremost, as much as I enjoy Puss as a character, he was always meant to be a sidekick. He’s great for comic relief and action set pieces, with his machismo and braggadocio fitting in perfectly in those limited spheres. As a lead, however, his hubris becomes excruciating, because it’s basically non-stop. This is why the first spinoff movie fell flat. You can only do the bit for so long before it loses all appeal.
And sadly, that’s how this film starts, with Puss throwing a gigantic party at a governor’s mansion (unbeknownst to said governor), singing songs about how great he is, and generally breaking the law (and we’re supposed to root for him) before his antics literally wake up a sleeping giant. He then dispatches the monster in truly idiotic, illogical fashion, and in his post-fight celebration, the church bell he used as a weapon drops on him, temporarily killing him. He is informed by a magical doctor (Anthony Mendez) that he has now used eight of his nine lives (the single most damaging fake cliché about cats other than ignoring their lactose intolerance to portray them as loving milk and cream; if you’ve ever owned a cat you know the consequences of this cartoonish lie), and it’s recommended that he retire from adventuring.
Undeterred, Puss vows to continue his cavalier ways — including saying his own name about 78,000 times — before he meets a wolf (Wagner Moura) at a bar and duels him, mistaking the literal specter of Death (they play it as a big reveal later on, but if the scythes he uses or the fact that he literally appears from nowhere don’t tip you off, I don’t know what to say) for a bounty hunter. Truly terrified for the first time in his life, Puss decides to literally bury his persona and move in with Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), an old black cat lady with an American southern accent, which you meet all the time in 18th century Spain. In his depression, he begins a reluctant association with a small dog dressed as a cat (Harvey Guillén from What We Do in the Shadows) simply referred to as “Dog” or “Perrito” in lieu of a name.
As we slog through a parade of jokes about shut-ins with lots of cats (and Puss inexplicably grows a beard somehow), we are then introduced to our second secondary antagonists, a Cockney “crime family” consisting of Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears (Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, and Samson Kayo). They’re on the hunt for Puss, not to kill him, but to hire him, as they want him to steal a map to a legendary “Wishing Star” that fell to Earth some years ago and will grant one wish to whoever finds it. Overhearing their plan and sensing an opportunity to get his lives (and thus his mojo) back, Puss, with Perrito in tow, decides to find the map and star himself.
This leads us to the true villain of the film… Donald Trump. Oh sure, they say it’s “Big” Jack Horner (a grown-up version of the “Little” nursery rhyme character), but in design, demeanor, and devilish motivations, he’s a caricature of the former President. Jealous that he has no magic powers, and thus can’t be loved like other fairy tale characters, he’s devoted his life to amassing wealth (and casually disposing of those who help him acquire it) and collecting magical artifacts, and wants to use the Wishing Star to gain all the magical power in the world so that he can be an unquestioned ruler. Played by John Dulaney, he’s an utterly irredeemable man-baby with a whiny voice, a big mouth, and an oily yet foppish receding hairline. Even when he’s accompanied by a talking cricket (Kevin McCann) that I took to calling “Jiminy Stewart” based on the voice, his entire persona is pure evil and unchecked avarice.
Look, I get it. I hate Trump, too. He’s proven himself time and again as a vile, disgraceful excuse for a human being. All of his successes are down to grift, fraud, outright criminality, dumb luck, and/or the privilege of failing upward. He made our country a laughing stock around the world, kowtowed to dictators, and committed sedition by inciting an insurrection against his own government when the people of this nation got even more sick of him than before (remember, he lost the first vote by three million and only won by 110,000 votes across three states for the Electoral College, a minority-rules situation that only we have) and voted him out of office. He deserves to spend the rest of his miserable life behind bars, and all of his assets (and those of his willing associates, cronies, and children) liquidated and redistributed back to the whole of the American people whom he defrauded for decades even before he tried to overthrow the government and have his own Vice President killed.
But for the love of God, Hollywood, come up with a better target for cheap laughs, will you? Every time Horner’s on the screen, whatever momentum the movie has is stopped dead in its tracks to make time for more low-effort exercises in pointing out that which we already know. The kids in the audience won’t get the joke, and the adults will either be emotionally exhausted at having to think about him again, aggravated by the lack of creativity, or, if they still inexplicably support the man, livid that you’re trying to “indoctrinate” their children and “groom” them to hate their leader. It’s a no-win situation and it reeks of pettiness, except that you actually have to try to be petty. I mean, did you honestly think a rejected Doonesbury sketch would be the thing to finally take him down? What are you even doing?!
Anyway, when all sides meet to gain this map to the star, the cast is completed by the return of Kitty Softpaws, who now bears a grudge against Puss for a previous betrayal that makes no sense when the context is revealed. After another horribly designed fight scene — as I’ve mentioned previously, Dreamworks directed the filmmakers on this project and The Bad Guys to mimic the comic book layering style of Into the Spider-Verse, but here it’s apparently only in action sequences while the rest of the art style is true to the Shrek franchise — Puss, Kitty, and Perrito reach the Dark Forest, where the true quest for the Wishing Star begins.
Thankfully, it is at this point, at the beginning of the second act, that the movie actually becomes good. The first act is wall-to-wall crap for the most part, from Puss’ characterization, to the cheesy ripoff animation techniques, to the cat lady naming Puss “Pickles” and watching him stand up on a functioning toilet to piss. All of it is plodding exposition, bad presentation, and nonsense, without even having the decency to be funny. But when we enter the Dark Forest, this becomes a real movie, one that I’d wholeheartedly recommend if it was the whole thing.
First thing’s first, Perrito is a great character. He’s a little irritating at the beginning, like most characters in this universe are, but he grows on you quickly. His relentless positivity is infectious, whether it’s for a quick gag like popping his eyeballs trying to do cute begging eyes like Puss and Kitty, or when he’s being genuinely comforting and affectionate as part of his desire to become a therapy dog. Like Puss, he works really well as a side character, aided by Guillén’s Michael Cera-eque performance, supplementing the action and granting it greater context and subtext rather than commandeering attention unnecessarily. When I saw the trailer (and included it in TFINYW), he looked to be the most potentially infuriating character in the whole film. Instead, he winds up being by far the best.
Similarly, while I have questions about how they became a crime family without us seeing them doing any real crime or giving us any real backstory, the dynamic between Goldi and the Bears works on a certain level. The nature of their conflict, and of Goldi’s desire for the star, is a story point we’ve seen dozens of times, but it’s handled well, in a way that I think the kiddies watching will be able to understand as intended. I cringe at the idea of them “teaching” kids how to order concessions or whatever commercial tie-in rubbish they’re being used for, but within the film, their bond is effective.
I also love the nature of the adventure. As a really fun device, once inside the Dark Forest, the map to the Wishing Star will adapt to whoever is holding it, essentially creating a path tailored to the personality of those seeking the star. For those with less than honorable aims, which is basically everyone except Perrito to some extent, all manner of deadly obstacles are put in the way, making it exceedingly dangerous to cross, if not impossible. For the pure-hearted Perrito, however, the trek would be a jaunty stroll with endlessly pleasant stops along the way. Even the ones that contain some element of risk only present themselves as such if approached aggressively. It’s a great idea on a visual level, because it lets the animators be extremely creative when making the magical environments, but it’s even better for thematic purposes, because it teaches children that greed and selfishness are their own roadblocks, and that more importantly, they’re completely of our own choosing.
But the best element by far is the idea of Puss being confronted with his own mortality. As much as I despise the “nine lives” trope, in a world of fairy tale logic, it does work to inform Puss’ character. If he’s essentially unkillable, of course he would conduct himself with the devil may care bravado that we’ve seen since 2004. So to be literally and figuratively staring death in the face for the first time, his shock, fear, hesitance, regret, and self-doubt all totally make sense. Fight vs. flight instincts kick in for him in a way they never have before, with his fur standing up on end (spectacular animation here), and he truly doesn’t know what to do. It’s completely foreign to him. To see Puss reconcile all this in real time is almost worth making him a main character in his own film. Almost.
This could have been a Cats-level disaster, and from the marketing, I honestly thought it would be. Like I said, the fun of the Shrek series was lost for me long ago in a swamp of fart jokes and dated references, and there was no need to give Puss in Boots a sequel to his own mediocre solo outing. For the first third, my fears were becoming justified, and I was praying for mercy to paraphrase our feline hero. But once the window-dressing and table-setting were dispensed with, and we could have an actual adventure in a magical land with creative stakes, it turned out to be pretty fun. Things wrapped up a bit too neatly for my tastes, and I’m sure all the progress Puss made as a character will be undone by his next appearance, but in the end, I’m okay with it. This is a movie meant for the limited attention spans of a super young audience, and they most certainly won’t care. What the film really needed to do right, it did. Everything else will eventually fall by the wayside for the kids watching it, and the parents will be thankful for a bit of nostalgia.
But seriously, if you ever show me Puss standing to piss again, I’m out.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you still all in on this franchise? Which of Puss’ “deaths” did you like or dislike the most? Let me know!