By Alyson Wong
That opener, like all good things that don’t take themselves too seriously, will probably land you in one of two camps – camp can’t help but smile or camp eye roll.
Hopefully you find yourself in the former and know that that’s the famous line of the one and only, Puss in Boots. But if you’re in the latter camp and had no idea until now, consider yourself now culturally illuminated.
My long-held appreciation for animation, film, good storytelling and “Shrek” led me (yes, a bonafide adult) to watch “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” at a matinee theater screening on Sunday, Feb. 12. Knowingly, this screening also overlapped with one of America’s biggest events of the year (at least in terms of eyeballs watching) – The Super Bowl. I didn’t miss the historic halftime show after the feature film’s one-hour and 37-minute run time, but to my surprise and delight, around 17 other compadres also settled into theater seats around me with popcorn and drinks to see the Spanish swashbuckling orange tabby cat, too. And from the looks of the tall silhouettes outlined by the glowing cinema screen, but for one child, the audience was made up of all adults.
If you’re not familiar, Puss in Boots, or rather, Puss…in Boots, always self-announced with a guttural emphasis on the “Puss” and then followed by an over-the-top brandish of a cat-sized rapier, is voiced by none other than Antonio Banderas. Not far from a feline animated Zorro (see Antonio Banderas in the 1998 “Mask of Zorro”), Puss is the furry sidekick of Dreamworks’s beloved swamp-dwelling canon character, Shrek. For those who grew up watching Shrek, the mention may conjure riffs from the classic “All Star” song by Smash Mouth – “Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me” – along with a montage of other classic Far Far Away characters and scenes.
However, nostalgia aside, Puss has come a long way. Traversing time, many franchise iterations and cultural metamorphoses (see “Shrek The Musical,” Shrekfest, and maybe tread lightly with Shrek memes and underground internet fandoms) to have his second feature spin off 11 years after the first release of “Puss in Boots” in 2011. For the uninitiated, Puss made his debut appearance in “Shrek 2,” the sequel that came out three years after the first historical Shrek film in 2001.
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” still remains fresh, however, and has something for everyone: Adventure, romance, action, humor, drama, a great score (there is a full-on musical number and album soundtrack) and a unique visual animated style to boot. Despite not having seen the prior “Puss in Boots,” this film stands firmly on its own while building off of previous content for long-term fans. Cue a cameo from Gingy, the Gingerbread Man.
This time, Puss must confront the consequences of his legendary and questionably reckless life escapades when a doctor informs him that he has used nearly all of his nine lives and has only one more left to live. Grappling with his since ignored mortality and an ensuing identity-crisis, he is catapulted into a journey to reckon with and ultimately accept the Puss behind the boots.
In order to escape Death, an actual personified character that comes after Puss in the form of a bounty hunter wolf with two glinting sickles, the protagonist begrudgingly goes to a pseudo retirement sanctuary for cats, Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue, to give up his larger-than-life persona in exchange for the mundane housecat activities of eating, sleeping and growing a beard. Casting off his identity in hiding doesn’t seem to deter Death however, and along with an aspiring therapy dog disguised as a cat named Perrito, voiced by Harvey Guillén, and Kitty Softpaws, a rival slick white-pawed feline love voiced by Salma Hayek, he goes on a search for The Wishing Star, in hopes to extend his final life.
With a subversive twist on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, other characters like Goldilocks, voiced by Florence Pugh, Mama Bear, voiced by Olivia Colman, and Jack Horner by John Mulaney, are woven into the fray which add concurrent story arcs that add tension to and weave beautifully with Puss’ main journey.
The mastery of this film flows from the respect held for its audience. Not only are metaphysical themes of vulnerability amidst death, forgiveness amidst wounded love, and hope amidst struggle all treated with the sensitivity and depth they are due. The depiction of emotions and action are left undiluted, and the quirks of the characters and story are the primary guiding forces throughout.
For example, Puss has a veritable panic attack in the Dark Forest due to the overwhelm of his plight with Death. The dignity with which this scene is portrayed is both sophisticatedly simple and poignant because of that. Not many know what to do when overwhelmed or overcome by a panic attack, let alone those that care for the affected watching close by. Without words, a few-minute scene where Perrito comes to Puss’ aid movingly illustrates the power that presence provides for those in a very scary place.
The visual quality of the film also aims high and enhances the intricate themes of the story’s emotional underpinnings. The film’s color palette is lush, almost bordering on technicolor or neon, as if Puss and company were living inside an exploded piñata. And yet, the brushstrokes, linework and details are all simultaneously restrained and loose, creating an unparalleled deliberate vibrancy. Almost like a coloring book, certain elements are left in full detail while others are selectively more muted and less stylized, resulting in a painterly hand-touched effect. Also notably during action and fight scenes, the frame rate is artistically controlled, with movement slowed down and punctuated, harkening to other animated styles outside of Western fare.
Animation is often sadly relegated to the sidelines of film or cinematic art, but this feature reminds us of the grave oversight of that outlook. The feature was first released exclusively in theaters on Dec. 21, 2022, and runs until March 2023. At the time of this writing, the film aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes, shows a 94% audience score and 95% tomatometer score for the title. And according to BoxOffice Mojo, the film also grossed more than $169 million in the domestic box office. This feature about a talking cat protagonist has also been nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy Awards with the award ceremony taking place on March 12.
To remind viewers of just how far Dreamworks has come, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” also opened with the animation studio’s newly reimagined moon child logo sequence incorporating many past notable franchises like “Kung Fu Panda,” “Boss Baby” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” It shouldn’t be forgotten that classics, like “Chicken Run” and “The Prince of Egypt,” were also born from this studio.
All in all, I laughed, I cried, I was moved, I was entertained, and I was prompted to reflect. And most of all, I experienced something new and unexpected, which is what I hope for when I go see a film. The title is bold and brash just like Puss in Boots and courageous in the way it remains true to itself while also taking some risks.
May we heed the advice that the Wolf of Death offers Puss, “Live your life … live it well,” and be so lucky to have friends like Perrito along the way.
Alyson Wong is an interdisciplinary writer, artist, filmmaker and photographer living in the Richmond District. She is a native San Franciscan and regular contributor to the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers. Her aim is to explore cinema without pretension through this monthly column, “In The Mood for Film.”
Categories: In the Mood for Film
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