This film is better than it has any right to be. The Puss in Boots franchise is essentially a spin-off from the Shrek films featuring one of their many minor characters. And yet the people behind Puss in Boots have made these films lovingly and with respect for animation. Their efforts give me hope for humanity and the film industry.
The 2011 Puss in Boots film was produced and heavily influenced by Guillermo del Toro. Why didn’t I know that? He left the Hobbit films and was so impressed with an early screening of Puss that he asked to help with the film. The bar was set high for the sequel.
It is remarkable that the makers of the Puss films saw in his character the potential for moving and profound stories. He’s a talking cat voiced by Antonio Banderas, a jokey call-back to Banderas’s one successful film, The Mask of Zorro (1998). When Puss first appeared in Shrek 2 almost 20 years ago, people went nuts for him. ‘One of the most lovable and laughable characters in animation history’, said one critic, so it’s no wonder enterprising filmmakers decided to give him his own franchise.
The surprising part is how good the spin-off films are, and the second one, The Last Wish, is considerably better than the first. Steering away from the iconic Shrek computer animation style, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish looks more like a painting, drawing on many filmic and artistic traditions including anime. The fight scenes mix 300-style dramatic slow motion (but better) and anime sequences (the good kind) where the opponents race at each other with the background blurring behind them—there’s nothing in frame but Puss and his enemy. I recently watched Shrek: Forever After and it’s clear why the Puss in Boots makers have chosen drawing style animation. The Shrek film computer graphics have aged.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a meditation on mortality. Puss has been living life at thirty miles an hour, or however fast cats run, and before he knows it he’s used up 8 of his 9 lives. This prompts him to question his own mortality for the first time: ‘Do I die a hero or come home to die?’ He imagines his own funeral. He mourns himself.
Then, he meets death for the first time. Death is a wolf with two gleaming sickles, which bear the marks of Puss’s 8 lives. Only one left, and now Death has come to taunt Puss. His glowing red eyes burn for the souls of his prey. He is a nightmare fit for children and adults alike—none of us can escape our fates. Puss has a panic attack and manages to escape Death, for now.
We then find him in a cat retirement home, prompting us all to reflect on the depressing nature of a place where people go to die. He meets a damaged but eternally optimistic chihuahua named Perro—well, Puss calls him that. The dog didn’t have a name or any friends before Puss. We meet lots of other fairytale and nursery rhyme characters including Olivia Coleman and Ray Winstone as Mama and Papa Bears and Florence Pugh as a staff-wielding Goldielocks. Then there’s little Jack Horner who’s grown into a Boris Johnson look-alike with a purple wig who exhibits sociopathic qualities.
Why is he so damaged, he wonders? After all, he had a normal childhood with loving parents. He’s just a psycho. All these characters are after the map that will lead them to the wishing star, which will help them fulfil their fondest desire. Goldie wants her real family, her human family. Jack Horner wants to control all magic. Puss wants to cheat Death again. Everyone merges on the dangerous path through the map’s enchanted world, at the heart of which is the wishing star.
All along, Puss resists the companionship of the two creatures who love him—Perro and Kitty Softpaws, whom Puss left at the altar. Cats are a solo act—he walks by himself. But can he live with himself at the end of his life? Can he respect the cat he’s become, when all his fans have gone home and there’s no one to share a glass of milk with?
The film’s portrayal of anxiety, depression and personal crisis is beautifully handled. Puss has another panic attack in the map’s enchanted world, running from Death again, and little Perro finds him lying prostrate, unable to move, sweating and frozen in fear. Perro doesn’t know what to do, so he does what any kind friend would do and rests his head on Puss’s pounding heart. Perro is a brilliant therapy dog—I want one. Puss’s racing heart calms.
By the time the hunters converge on the wishing star, some of them have learned their life’s greatest lesson. Others haven’t. Jiminy cricket is alarmed at Jack Horner’s sadistic behaviour: ‘I’m starting to think you don’t appreciate the value of a human life.’ Goldielocks learns the perfect life and family she’d been imagining only exists in her mind—and perhaps the family she needs is right in front of her. Will the glimmer of another life tempt Puss into choosing the wishing star over his friends?
Thankfully Puss achieves true hero status when he realises that even he cannot cheat death, and that a hero doesn’t run from it, but stands to face it. Death does not expect to be met head on— that ruins the fun. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish reignites the power of fairytales as metaphors for life’s great predicaments. Puss may be on his last life but I hope it’s not the last we see of him, or the team that created him.