‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ Review: Mortality Casts a Shadow on Otherwise Amusing Animated Sequel

There are comic moments that land, and action set pieces that pop, but the overwhelming sensation here is a meditation on the inevitability of death

"Puss in Boots: The Last Wish"
"Puss in Boots: The Last Wish"

This review of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” was first published on November 26.

It’s been 11 years since the last “Puss in Boots” movie, and 12 years since the last proper installment of the original blockbuster “Shrek” movie franchise. So it makes sense that this new kids movie would want to grow up with its former audience. But “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” may have overshot that mark: The latest fairy-tale comedy adventure is all about how living in an old folks’ home is tragic and depressing and only slightly preferable to our inevitable, terrifying deaths.

Unless, of course, you find a wishing star!

Um… yay?

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” stars Antonio Banderas as the voice of the titular hero, a feline in fabulous footwear who has had an impressive number of daredevil adventures. At the start of the movie he’s usurped a corrupt governor’s mansion for the purposes of a fabulous populist party — the cake-and-streamers kind, not a political one — and then he wages war against, essentially, Grendel from “Beowulf.” It’s a gigantic giant who’s annoyed by all the hubbub and will stop at nothing to shut his noisy neighbors up.

Director Joel Crawford (“Croods: The New Age”) uses this action-packed opening to establish that the “Shrek” franchise hasn’t lost its sense of whimsy. The film uses modern animation styles popularized by “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” to give the film a less fluid yet sharper aesthetic whenever the danger sets in. It looks for all the world like “The Last Wish” will, if nothing else, be a hoot and a holler, a barrel full of thrilling, fairy-tale laughs.

And then Puss dies.

It’s only temporary of course. Puss in Boots is a cat, and in a fantasy universe, cats have nine lives. But what Puss doesn’t realize until it’s almost too late is that he’s officially on his last life, and his next death will be final. Now he’s being hunted by a mysterious and powerful wolf who wields razor-sharp sickles and may be, and probably is, the literal personification of Death (Wagner Moura, “The Grey Man”). Either way, he’s an unstoppable juggernaut who will not rest until Puss is buried in the ground. He hates every single thing Puss in Boots stands for — a life lived seemingly oblivious to mortality.

So Puss does what any hero would do in that situation. He retires immediately and runs away to the cat version of an assisted-living facility, the house of an elderly lady who swiftly reduces Puss’s life into a meaningless purgatory filled with humiliation, shame, overcrowding, and troughs of joyless dry food.

There’s a whole big plot to “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” after that, in which a whole bunch of fairy-tale creatures search for the magic wishing star of nursery rhyme legend, which has the power to grant just one last wish. Puss saddles up to get his lives back and teams up with his old flame Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault) and an annoyingly friendly therapy dog (Harvey Guillén, “What We Do in the Shadows”). Also on the hunt are Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her rough-and-tumble gang-slash-family of bears, and the villainous “Little” — strike that, now he’s “Big” — Jack Horner (John Mulaney), who carries Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, which he’s filled with deadly fairy-tale artifacts.

Along the way, most of them learn valuable lessons and endure a wide variety of amusing side quests, but it’s incredibly hard to shake the notion that everything we’re watching is a desperate fantasy, not the fun kind. Puss in Boots isn’t on a rousing adventure; he’s performing the fairy-tale equivalent of grasping at miracle cures while he’s dying from a terminal illness. And although the film is funny in fits and starts, and exciting in fits and starts, the ultimate takeaway is weirdly sobering.

It’s an appealingly animated feature film, colorful and sometimes visually innovative. There are gags about fairy tales that range from eye-rolling to genuinely hilarious — the cameo from Jiminy Cricket certainly qualifies among the latter — and there are swashbuckling fight scenes that swash and/or buckle rather well. Surprising no one, Florence Pugh steals many scenes with her badass-yet-soulful rendition of Goldilocks, in which she wasn’t eaten but instead raised by comedy-relief bears (voiced by Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone and Samson Kayo). Even though she has a loving family, she still feels traumatized by her apparent abandonment, and Pugh plays that up wonderfully.

And yet — and yet — when all is said and done, no matter how affirmed everyone’s life is, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” makes its biggest impact by suggesting that all of these delightful fairy-tale creatures in the “Shrek” universe are truly destined to die, genuinely die, and that their deaths might not be heroic or even exciting. Some of them may die sad and lonely, thinking about what could have been.

Can… can we get another wish?

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” opens in US theaters Dec. 21 via Dreamworks Animation.