Directed by Joel Crawford
Written by Tom Wheeler, Paul Fisher, and Tommy Swerdlow
I have, I hope, made it abundantly clear how much I've come to appreciate the existence of DreamWorks Animation. They've been the sole studio to remain a reliable and effective counterbalance during this current period of American feature animation, the Walt Disney and Pixar Inexplicably Suck Now Era, which as the name implies is not as yet fully understood, but has threatened to condemn the medium to its dreariest state in, at least, a decade and a half. Indeed, this past year gave us cause to worry that clouds could still take our only sunshine away: we witnessed DreamWorks suffer its first stumble in six years and seven features* with The Bad Guys, a film that suddenly reminded us that the studio's peculiar approach to the medium—to seemingly seek out the world's dumbest ideas so they could turn them into bright, poppy, stupid-brilliant cartoons—actually could result in a bad movie. Fortunately, with their second feature of 2022, we can breathe a sigh of relief, because DreamWorks obviously has much life left in it. The film that proves this, Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, isn't even that dumb an idea itself, or at least not a dumb idea in execution. It's worth conceding that the underlying concept, "Zorro, by which I mean literally Zorro, is a cat now," a character introduced in the Shrek series and spun-off into his own eponymous solo feature in 2011, is a somewhat dumb idea. Likewise, "an eleven-years-later sequel to Puss In Boots, continuing (via sub-franchise) DreamWorks's most-successful overarching franchise," could potentially be called a desperate idea, but desperate is different than dumb, if maybe not necessarily something that instills confidence.
Well, we can dispense with that. Sure, it might be a little desperate: of the surviving American animation studios, DWA may remain the most tenuous, so let us not begrudge them a fiendish addiction to sequelizing every single profitable film they produce. Particularly since another one of the studio's special tricks has been sequels that are significantly better than their predecessors, and in the form of The Last Wish's director, Joel Crawford, DreamWorks has assigned to the task before us a man who, with 2020's The Croods: The New Age, already demonstrated he could make awesome DreamWorks sequels even from terrible DreamWorks originals. Puss In Boots was already high-tier DWA in first place, and whether that made the challenge more daunting or less doesn't really matter when this sequel's story affords it such an amazingly crystal-clear right to exist.
Crawford deserves a slightly more robust treatment than directors of big-ticket CGI animated films would usually get, however, because I'm not sure I can name many other people operating in that role who are more obviously the directors of the movies they've made, that is, who have a more identifiable style to their filmmaking. This is to the extent that when I put his name in the tags only to realize that I'd used it in a review before, I mumbled to myself, "then it couldn't have been anything except for Trolls Holiday, where I said something along the lines, 'I hope this Crawford fellow gets all the opportunities he needs, because he's got one hell of a sensibility,'" and evidently DreamWorks heard my prayer, because they've been giving him those opportunities fast and furious. He's latterly become the presumptive leading light of what we might as well start calling the DWA Renaissance, now that WDAS has gone through two and doesn't look like it's going to start a new one anytime soon.
That sensibility, then, is very much "of DreamWorks," and obviously applicable to DWA's bread-and-butter, their gag cartoons, but it's something of a perfection of it. This is shown with the flawlessly-built gag delivery device of Trolls Holiday, a 26-minute short released in 2019, and moreover in his feature debut, that Croods sequel, the latter of which is basically Trolls Holiday's sensibility applied to a feature's length, if—I don't want to say "burdened"—but at least channeled and constrained by the need for a feature-length narrative. Crawford rose out of the ranks of DWA's story artists, which is a good place to develop the skills he has, which could be reduced to something nebulous like "timing" or "punchiness" but I think could be better-described as an expert grasp of how to use the boundaries of a film image to prosecute comedy, concertedly using the limits of that image, both physical (the frame) and temporal (edits), to really sell the shit out of a humorous situation. This is ordinarily very punchy indeed in its effect, rolling off a litany of individualized gags, usually pretty strictly one-per-shot but with a lot of quickly-cut, rhythmic visual matching. The real tell is the willingness to cut at the exact moment the gag makes itself known. It's recognizable enough that I would bet money that though he was still but a story artist, I'd be correct to identify him as the mind behind the best sequence in Trolls, the quick-cut musical montage of Poppy seeming to repeatedly die, saved solely by the fact that edits happen before she gets eaten by monsters—and this sequence, incidentally, gets a zesty conceptual callback in The Last Wish. That strategy is also very much apparent in its bravura opening sequence—as are about half a dozen other strategies, far too many to equally-laboriously describe—which involves a party, a musical number, jokes about celebrity worship and how cats enjoy milk, swashbuckling action, and, ultimately, an angry giant. Though at the end of it our (favorite fearless) hero, legendary outlaw Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), does die.
So I've been describing Crawford's facility for comedy, knowing that eventually I was going to have to get to where I indicated that The Last Wish is "a comedy" only as something like its third or fourth priority, and while it's quite funny, it finds Crawford stretching into surprising and significant new territory, and reminding us that while DWA is mostly a gag cartoon factory, its best-loved efforts are deeper, or at the very least more sincerely-built, and are fundamentally—don't roll your eyes at me, buster—serious character dramas. They have not been able to do this with more than one character or at best one character dynamic at a time, and they haven't started now, but while The Last Wish doesn't fully escape that "gag cartoon" gravity (and doesn't want to, and, honestly, probably shouldn't want to), I've rarely known a DWA cartoon that understands when to shut up and stop the way this one does. I've never known one to understand this across the breadth of a whole feature, and I expect this is why this film's emotional wallops, when they come, strike like slaps to the face, though Crawford is frequently (even perversely) using the same tools to deliver them as his comedy.
Of course, Puss's death here at the beginning of his film is a joke, but death itself is no joke: this turns out to have been Puss's eighth life, out of the customary feline total of nine, and while Puss has been so frivolous about throwing his lives away that it's up to the local doctor (Anthony Mendez) to actually tally them for him, once he fully realizes he's now on his last, the extremely few elements that have made up his identity up till now as a self-styled fearless hero evaporate. Puss is of course still too arrogant to comprehend this just because a doctor lectures him. He realizes it only when he meets the Wolf (Wagner Moura, which is a ludicrously perfect name), whom he believes is "a bounty hunter," though we are invited to understand, by various heavy clues, from his uncanny visualization, to the funereal whistle he provides, to the way he simply manifests beside Puss at a bar in his introductory "gag," that he is nothing so mundane. He is Death. "Not metaphorically, not poetically, not rhetorically, and not theoretically, and not in any other fancy way."
Puss loses this fight, and his famous sword, and escapes with his ninth life basically because watching him scurry seems to amuse the Wolf, and after burying the other accoutrements of his legend, resigns himself to a pathetic existence as a prisoner of the local crazy cat-lady (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), annoyed in a distant way by the other cats, and in an only slightly-keener way by the clingy chihuahua pretending to be a cat, called only "Perro" or "Perrito" (Harvey Guillén). Puss's past returns in the form of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, and Samson Kayo), who like all the fairy tale characters in this franchise are reimagined as villains and antiheroes, and who seek the cat for a heist. So unrecognizable that he's able to hide in plain sight, they leave without him, but he does overhear what they intend to steal: a map to the mythical Wishing Star that landed in the Black Woods, presently being transported to baker-gangster-wizard Jack Horner (John Mulaney), and which can offer one person one wish. Realizing that such magic can restore his lives, Puss determines to take that map, and that wish, for himself, a quest complicated by Perrito's insistence on coming along, and complicated further when the attempt to secure the map brings him into conflict with not just Goldilocks's crew and Horner but his old flame Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). Now with two quasi-allies alongside him, Puss strikes out into the mercurial, metaphorical landscape of the Black Woods, but their enemies are right behind, and there is, after all, only one wish. And there is always Death.
The first act of this is, I assume, the longest sustained bout of absolutely-perfect animated storytelling the DreamWorks canon has ever generated—conceivably, it might even beat out the "dragon date" sequence in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World—going 150% at juggling its tones and its dozens of jokes with almost impossible deftness, and just starting with the very basic, it's Banderas. Banderas's vocal performance was the best part of the first film, and he might not be the best part of this, but he's still its most necessary component, establishing within moments and in the broadest (and therefore most appropriate!) possible strokes a larger-than-life figure of vicarious mastery and joy, every line winding up a bizarre "I have played many stereotypical Spaniards, but now I will show you what it's like when I really try" rasp, especially in his extremely catchy yet I hesitate-to-call-actually-good song, which is somehow a banger despite almost literally just being the words "who is your favorite fearless hero" over and over. The visuals match the panache of the performance, and so it's almost profound in its reversal when that performance and that hero get flattened completely into meek fear before the surreal implacability of Death, rendered by Moura as a chummy yet terrifying companion. I say "almost" profound, but only because I'm frankly embarrassed by my reaction to this: there is something about the specifics of how this is all put together—the life-flashing-before-his-eyes montage set to the pulse of a pounding heartbeat, his uniform placed in a shallow grave and shot from the point-of-view of a body in that grave, even that little, crucial touch of blood—that makes this Goddamn kid's cartoon feel more than just notionally severe. Even the tenor of the jokes that still get told through this phase of the film is correct, with Banderas's bluster replaced with a wan, flopsweatty desperation. Maybe I should emphasize that in this children's animated comedy, Puss escapes Death by resorting to crawling through a shitty bar toilet and this is not a joke. He later has cause to poop in a litter box and this is a joke, but also the horrible moment that Puss, unwilling to face life or death, has accepted stasis.
It is not an entire feature's worth of absolutely-perfect animated storytelling, I'm afraid, which is a pity, though it is almost never actually bad. (The only "actual bad" thing, besides the occasional flat dialogue joke and a wonky timeline that indicates months or years spent in cat-lady exile or no more than forty-eight hours, depending on the scene, is a climactic battle that feels faux after the previous, actually-climactic battle, but I can't see a way around it.) Essentially, it's that the further you get from Puss and his central arc, the less effective it is: Perrito's empty-headed optimism machine isn't quite as winning as the film thinks he is, and the secondary antagonists in Goldilocks and Horner are very plug-n-play. Horner's especially modular, a nursery rhyme protagonist who's broken bad because of his jealousy of magic fairy tale protagonists; this has led him to amass a collection of magical artifacts, which are vectors for Shrekky references that had been largely kept out of the original Puss In Boots's ambit. An ill-conceived rivalry with Pinocchio is the major one, though I won't even call this entirely bad: it leads to the Cricket, or as the credits describe him, "The Ethical Bug," and thus we have the pleasure of Kevin McCann doing, for reasons that don't totally track but seem natural enough, a startlingly spot-on impression of Jimmy Stewart in "indignantly horrified" mode across half the film. I'm sure Jeff Katzenberg approves, and you almost don't notice that this one-note joke exists solely to keep a character whose entire deal is being evilly glib so much as modestly interesting.
Meanwhile, the Black Woods, rather more colorful within their ever-shifting interior, are presented as a physical manifestation of the mapholders' personalities, which manages to give Goldilocks a canned arc of her own (that benefits, perhaps even unfairly, from being in proximity to the deep sincerity of Puss's arc). Even as far as Puss goes, the movie's obviously going to have trouble with richly-visualizing a psychology that's expressly defined by a life spent avoiding having a rich emotional existence, which may be an additional reason besides "plot" why the map keeps changing hands, though this phase concludes on its best note, with one literalized representation of Puss's psyche that's pretty great.
But to the extent the movie ever gets off-track, it's never for long. The adventure-flick-programmer, just-another-yarn whimsy of all the less-vital stuff maybe even works on its behalf. When it's compelled to return to its principal focus, DEATH, it's absolutely wrenching about it, and now we get to talk about how this movie looks. "A comedy fourth," I said, without clarifying what was first, second, and third, and while it's serious enough about its narrative that it is first of all a meditation on mortality—I did tell you not to roll your eyes at me—and third it's an action film, second it's a maniacal exercise in what cartoon style can be now that we can do things with CGI that aren't photorealism.
It builds out somewhat from The Bad Guys, in terms of how the characters are designed, more akin to watercolory digital painting set in motion, though it has intermittent relapses into photorealism for effect (most noticeably, when we get close-ups of Puss's fur, which snaps, from shots with a suggestion of fur using highlighted filaments for "dimensionality," to a hundred individually-rendered follicles rising in fear of his one adversary), and this, anyway, gets thrown into even sharper relief by the near-abstraction of the more physical sequences. There is inevitably a lot of overlap between "art cartoon" and "action film" here, taking its cues from Spider-Verse, with "framerate manipulation" in inverse proportion to just how out-of-hand things are getting. At its most frenetic, it's nearly just a collection of keyframes indicating action, while the rendering simplifies down to barely anything more complex than lozenges of color representing the characters and backgrounds. There's part of me that likes how this reflects Crawford's storytelling style back into the animation itself, as you sometimes get the sensation from his rapid-fire one-shot/one-idea cutting that he might be happiest doing downright kinestatic montage (though this is, obviously, badly disputed by how much pleasure he takes with an untethered virtual camera). There's another part of me that wants to call it a trendy gimmick. But even if that was the side I fell on, it's good gimmick.
What isn't a gimmick is how the design mentality reinforces the narrative so well it's essentially the biggest part of it. There's a whole thing with that Wolf, reflecting the archaic and dimly-recalled Indo-European mythology of the wolf as a symbol of death, that's probably accidental—the process was undoubtedly "wolves are scary, and, anyway, what better nemesis for a cat than a dog?"—but, you know, wolves are scary, and this wolf, unbearably so. Subtly, but very unmistakably, the Wolf is never given any sort of concrete realism, so that even within the extreme abstraction and variability of this world, he's never anything less than a phantasmal, electrifyingly supernatural presence, red eyes in hollow-looking black sockets, a monochrome negative space sucking the color out of his surroundings, almost a suggestion of something that can't truly be visualized. (It is not, I don't think, accidental that the most concretely-rendered character is his conceptual opposite, Kitty, and these two never to my recollection share a shot.) This is something vanishingly rare in animation these days, and I don't necessarily mean "thought put into how style is also story," though maybe I also mean that. But this is a creation made for the express purpose of genuinely frightening you—little kids might have an actual hard time with this movie, and that's a good thing—and in the context of an animated film this serious about what we can do with our powerlessness in the face of death, it's honestly a little bit extraordinary.
*Seven in-house features. The number rises to eight if you count Abominable, but this was made principally at DWA's Shanghai outfit, which by that point had already been spun off as Pearl.