Even though he was making a sequel to a film that had already spun off a franchise, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” director Joel Crawford wasn’t terribly concerned about following up on a big legacy. He knew he wanted to maintain “advanced comedy” — particularly adult “jokes that would go over kids’ heads” — from the “Shrek” movies and 2011’s “Puss in Boots.” Visually, however, Crawford felt that the story was ready to move beyond computer animation “that looked photoreal.”
“It’s crazy, telling the next chapter after so long, but we wanted to free ourselves,” she says. “We had a chance to go into new territory: this idea of throwing in a fairy tale. You can see the brushstrokes and it looks like you’re in a moving painting.”
But the new art style of “The Last Wish” does more than intensify the story of the infamous Antonio Banderas-voiced kitty. If anything, Puss is slowing down: in the film, the hero-slash-outlaw realizes he’s nearing the end of his nine lives and journeys into a dark forest to find a mysterious willing star to restore his lifespan. To complement those story beats, 2D inspirations were combined into 3D animation, which Crawford says, “tells the story more concretely. Puss in Boots has this fairy tale perspective of, ‘I’ll live forever.’
“You’re moving away from the literal and toward the impressionistic,” Crawford continues. For example, early in the film, Puss fights a giant using a giant church bell as a weapon. When the monster hits the face the screen transforms into a flat yellow card, the bell emits white circles that present a ringing sound, simulating something you might see in a comic book. A similar tactic is later used in Puss’ confrontation with Wolf (Wagner Moura), a bounty hunter with a sinister secret identity. As Crawford puts it, “Puss feels fear for the first time.” Therefore, the background of the shot turns red in a moment that is certainly earned but still feels creepy for a children’s film.
“Grimm is the root word. To expand on the word ‘Shrek’ fairy tale, we were inspired by the Grimm fairy tale,” says Crawford. He’s referring to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who wrote twisted versions of the German classic tale in the early 19th century — for example, their “Cinderella” ends with the stepsister’s eyes gouged out by a bird. “They were always cautionary tales that led you into the darkness to appreciate the light.
“We needed a character to bring Puss out of his ego, and a lot of times the wolf was the embodiment of fear in that Grimm fairy tale. So it made sense that the wolf would be this benevolent predator,” Crawford said.
“And when I say the word ‘bounty hunter,’ another inspiration was spaghetti westerns. Sergio Leone, the ‘Man With No Name’ kind of thing,” added Crawford. “It’s a way we can switch between different tones. This is not just a fairy tale; This movie has real stakes.”
The depth of visual and narrative references and the performances of the knockout voice cast — including Salma Hayek, Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone and John Mulaney — were enhanced by an abundance of detail and Easter eggs. Some were funny and easy to pick out, like cameos from the “Shrek” characters Pinocchio and Genji.
Others had weight. “When Puss is fighting the monster and swinging this bell around, the bell rings eight times,” Crawford notes. For every life lost so far – because death is always around the corner.