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‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ Director on Hiding Death in the Film’s Opening Sequence

After becoming an Oscar nominee Joel Crawford talks about designing the fearsome wolf, the fanart he’s inspired, and getting kids ready for school

Joel Crawford, director of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” found out he’s now an Academy Award nominee while getting his kids ready for school. A few hours later, he spoke to TheWrap about the achievement over the phone while taking his car in for repairs.

“Being a parent doesn’t stop even on Oscar day!” he laughed. “But thinking about this nomination I think about when I was a little kid who loved to draw and watch westerns; and to think that this lifelong love of Sergio Leone and a desire to make movies would be realized in this opportunity to tell a story about a epic, kind of absurd tale of a cat on his last life. It surprises me and I’m so grateful for it.”

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” has quietly amassed a devoted fanbase in the five weeks since its theatrical release, legging out at the box office to gross $300 million worldwide and counting. Along with the returning Puss (Antonio Banderas) and his rival/soulmate Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), audiences have embraced the sequel’s new characters, including the kind but goofy Perrito (Harvey Guillen), the bickering Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Samson Kayo), and the remorselessly devious Jack Horner (John Mulaney).

But perhaps the film’s biggest breakout star is Death, the scythe-wielding wolf voiced by Wagner Moura who hunts down Puss in Boots to take the last of his nine lives. His introduction in the film comes with an ominous whistle, the fairytale colors of Puss’ world draining from the screen as he rises out from the shadows and looms over the feline hero in a desolate tavern.

“My love of Sergio Leone actually played a factor in how we designed Death,” Crawford explained. “My co-director Januel Mercado also loves those westerns, so when we were designing Death we wanted him to feel like The Man With No Name, to have this gritty Western feel so that he feels like a bounty hunter. His blades also get drawn out of his belt like guns, so that adds to his gunslinger attitude.”

As some eagle-eyed fans have discovered, however, Death’s arrival in the tavern is not actually the first time he’s shown on-screen. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot during the film’s opening sequence, Death can be seen glowering in the back of an awestruck crowd as Puss in Boots fights a mythical monster. Later, during a montage of Puss’ past deaths, Death’s face can be seen in the corners of the title cards counting each of the nine lives lost.

“We wanted people to first feel Puss’ journey as he discovers that he is, in fact, vulnerable, and that this bounty hunter turns out to be Death himself, a presence that has been in his life the whole time,” Crawford explained. “We just thought that’s such a powerful reveal that we wanted to not just have Death say that he’s always been around Puss but actually show it, hiding it in moments that the audience wouldn’t see on the first watch.”

But despite his fearsome aura and the existential terror he ignites in Puss’ heart, Death has amassed binders full of fanart, earning gushing praise from fans for Moura’s performance and his intimidating presence. Artists also put their own spin on Puss’ and Death’s first encounter, drawing their faces as the duo first lock eyes on each other in their own style.

“It’s pretty mind-blowing!” Crawford said. “There are just so many artists that have drawn this character way better than I can!”

But more than that, Crawford takes the fanart as a sign that “Puss in Boots” fans understand what makes Death so special as an antagonist…and “antagonist” is the crucial word here.

“I think the reason people can come away loving this wolf is that he’s terrifying, but he’s not really the villain,” he explained. “He’s an antagonist to us because we’re seeing the story from Puss’ perspective, but they end with this kind of mutual respect that doesn’t diminish Death’s power or Puss as a hero. I think that’s a reason why people love Death and maybe even sort of root for him.”

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” has been nominated for Best Animated Feature alongside Netflix’s “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio” and “The Sea Beast,” Pixar’s “Turning Red,” and A24’s “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.” The film is now playing in theaters and is available on digital on-demand.