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Die Another Day

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DreamWorks Animation

MOVIE REVIEW
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

“Puss in Boots” came out in 2011, which is kids’ movie years is back around the dawn of time. Its lead character, the suave sword-fighting cat based on Zorro, was introduced to the “Shrek” universe back in 2004, a.k.a. slightly after the big bang. The big bang in American animation was “Shrek” itself, an anti-fairytale from 2001 that took its studio, DreamWorks Animation, into the big leagues. It changed the animation game both stylistically, moving away from hand-drawn work into computer animation, and tonally. Shrek was a disgusting ogre who behaved the exact opposite to the picture-perfect characters from a mouse-themed studio. The movie itself was chock full of pop-culture references (bored parents laugh out loud but the references don’t usually age well), it cast famous actors as the characters which permanently altered how animation has been performed since, and furthermore its knowing, snide tone has also been aped by most of non-Disney kids’ movies released in its wake. Once upon a time, all that was fresh, but kids who saw Puss in Boots debut in “Shrek 2” in 2004 have their own kids now.

Puss in Boots was the franchise’s breakout star because of Antonio Banderas. Here is an actor who went to the trouble of being born in Spain, developed an avant-garde career alongside Pedro Almodóvar, then learned another language and broke into Hollywood in 1993 by being brave enough to play gay alongside Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” when that was tantamount to career suicide. After that he played a vampire (alongside Tom Cruise), an action hero, a musical theater narrator and Zorro himself (in 1998’s pretty decent “The Mask of Zorro” with Catherine Zeta-Jones at her peak). But it wasn’t until he dropped his voice an octave to voice Puss in Boots that his career achieved its first huge success. This is why Hollywood can be a very silly place. On the other hand, something charming and cheerful that shuts the kids up for a few hours has a lot of value.

To the plot! In the dark forest, there’s rumored to be the resting place of the wishing star, which will grant whoever finds it a wish. Puss needs this wish, after a fight with a forest giant (clearly inspired by the works of Studio Ghibli) in which he uses up the eighth of his nine lives. On realizing he has only one life left, Puss has what can only be described as a midlife crisis, not helped by learning there’s a wolf bounty hunter (Wagner Moura, delicious) hot on his tail. After a short interlude in a cat sanctuary modeled after Kurtz’s compound in “Apocalypse Now,” Puss learns of a map that leads to the wishing star. But the map is held by greedy man-child Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney), and also being sought by the Cockney crime family of Goldilocks (Florence Pugh, excellent) and the three bears: Papa (old reliable Ray Winstone), Mama (Olivia Colman, who was presumably offered the part when the producers realized Kathy Burke has retired from acting) and Baby (Samson Kayo). (Sidebar: you can guess the screenwriters Paul Swerdlow and Tommy Fisher are Americans since they leave out all the many, many possible jokes about Brexit and Brits in Spain.)

After a colossal battle in which Horner’s large home full of every possible magical device is destroyed, the chase is on. Puss finds himself with the map and two new travelling companions: Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault, reprising her 2011 character) and Perrito (Harvey Guillén, basically reprising his “What We Do in the Shadows” character). Perrito is a goofy-looking sock-wearing chihuahua who infiltrated the cat sanctuary in disguise for the free food and who mistook Puss’s minor politeness there as friendship. His backstory is so grim Puss and Kitty actually cover their mouths in shock when he reveals it, but Perrito is such an innately cheerful character he overlooks the true horror of what happened to him, meaning the real import is likely to sail over little heads as well.

The map’s gimmick – in that the route through the dark forest is the same, but the obstacles are different depending on who is holding it – is an excellent one. Horner’s big evil motivations – he was brought up with everything a person needs but will never have everything he wants – are sharply written for the current moment. A little magic bug, not quite Jiminy Cricket, who attempts to be Horner’s conscience, is voiced by Kevin McCann in the style of Jimmy Stewart, providing the main laugh-out-loud moments in the film. It’s unlikely kids will get that joke, though.

But there aren’t too many jokes in this movie. It’s a sweet and beautiful-looking attempt to encourage the audience to respect the one life they have and spend it having a nice time with their friends. That is, of course, magnificently done, but there is so much casual violence and cruelty along the way that the message is nearly lost. When most of Horner’s henchmen, the bakers’ dozen, are incapacitated, Horner looks down at a woman clinging for her life to the edge of the cliff and asks, “Are you chatty?” When she shakes her head, he saves her. There are also too many people shot in the backside with baby-unicorn horns before exploding into a ball of glitter for it to be truly amusing. The war against the video-gamification of violence in film for kids was lost years ago, but this casual disrespect is certainly a mixed message for a movie trying to teach the audience to appreciate their one and only life. Director Joel Crawford has worked his way up at DreamWorks; this is his 12th movie with them and second as director, so he’s got the house style by heart by now. And despite these criticisms, it’s by far their best offering in a very long time.

It’s also clear in watching “Puss in Boots” and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” back to back just how much Hollywood has changed. Violence remains acceptable as long as there isn’t any blood, while since the last decade romance has been nearly phased out. Are there even kisses in kids’ movies anymore? In both voice casting and as animated presences there’s care given to how ethnicities are portrayed (no more Welsh women playing Mexicans, even if they’re dark-haired). Women are no longer window dressing but are equal players in the cast – there are even dumb female henchmen these days. The animation is so good the animators must set themselves new challenges with every film: Here it’s most visible when Puss’s hair stands on end in fright. A lot of these changes are downright refreshing, except the heteronormativity, but we can’t have everything. But most of the core messages stay the same: Families come together, evil is fought and sassy remarks are made in the face of danger. This is a pretty good movie that makes clear how far and how fast Hollywood has come, but even with anthropomorphized animals teaching life lessons to little kids, we still have further to go.

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