Nearly two decades after the character broke out in “Shrek 2″ and 11 years since his last solo outing, Puss in Boots – that Antonio Banderas-voiced rapscallion who wields his saucer eyes as dangerously as he does his sword – made his swashbuckling return to the big screen at an Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival presentation that saw the first 27 minutes of DreamWorks’ upcoming “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” screen before a packed auditorium.
Cheering before the opening song gave way to an action scene, the Annecy crowd greeted their feline friend with a pop idol’s welcome – neatly mirroring the energetic musical number happening on screen.
“At the forefront of our minds was not just reintroducing Puss to the world, but introducing the world to where the character is now,” director Joel Crawford tells Variety. “For us, it was really just about introducing this larger than life legend, this fairy-tale character, in a different way than before.”
“You could imagine he’s the world’s first celebrity,” adds producer Mark Swift. “We’ve compared him in all ages to Mick Jagger that lives off the crowd, that loves the attention, and has a healthy ego as well. As we were talking about that opening sequence, it was like, well, ‘What’s the rock star version of reintroducing Puss in Boots?’”
As we watch our hero overtake an aristocrat’s estate, leading the peasants in a chorus that asks, “Who’s your favorite fearless heeeeeero?” before cutting out to fight a lumbering giant who threatens the town, we find the cat vigilante on top of the world – but those high spirits do not last. How could they, when that opening melee ends up costing Puss one of his nine lives? To make matters worse, it was life number eight.
“There are darker tones in this,” Crawford explains. “Puss is down to the last of his nine lives. He’s grappling with his mortality, his fear of death is the engine that drives the movie, and the Grimm fairy tales were a big inspiration [on that front].” Indeed, one all too rarely hears the line “death comes for us all” uttered in such an all-ages film, nor hears it uttered in reference to a villainous Big Bad Wolf reimagined as the grim reaper, dressed in a dark cloak and handed a pair of scythes. But then “The Last Wish” does offer a slightly different proposition from what came before.
“Being 20 years into this series gives us license to evolve and change a little bit,” says Swift. “We handle these kind of deeper topics, pretty scary topics, and one of the things that gives us a little license to do that is the fact that we have taken this film out of the realism look.”
“[When ‘Shrek’ came out in 2001] CG animation was really in its infancy at a feature level,” Swift continues. “There was a limitation in the tools, and there was also a tendency to go more realistic, to go away from the 2D movies at the time. Now the tools are better. We don’t chase that realism as much, and it gives us the chance for more artistic fun. Because this film is not so realistic, we can broach some of those tougher subjects without it feeling as much in your face.”
While the character and production designs reimagine Puss and his surroundings with slightly more classical, storybook shadings, the action scenes display – for lack of better terms – a more stylized and cartoonish appearance. As Puss fights a lumbering beast surfaced to look as if it was hand painted, the animation drops to 12 frames a second, while the detailed backgrounds give way to color cards.
“Technology wise we have really found such a unique look,” says Crawford. “There’s a tangible feel, you see the paint and the brushstrokes… [Because] we wanted to give it a more painterly style, as if you were reading an old fashioned book with color illustrations, to make you feel like you’re in a fairy-tale world.”
Moving at a breakneck pace, the film’s opening act builds up the lead character before knocking him down, and just as soon as Puss rakishly swings from a chandelier does he put himself into bitter retirement after losing a life to the rock giant and his trusty sword to the Big Bad Wolf (voiced by Wagner Moura).
Burying his hat and boots, Puss seeks refuge at a cat shelter where – indignity of all indignities – he grows out his beard, walks on all fours, and accepts a new name: Pickles.
“It’s as if Mick Jagger lost his voice,” says Swift. “What would that story be where he has to figure out who am I without all the things that people value in me?” [And] let’s be honest: Beards are ridiculous.”
For all the project’s darker touches, the creative teams describes “The Last Wish” as a “fairy-tale spaghetti Western” that very quickly puts the humbled feline back on the road. As he sets out to find a shooting star that could grant him back his nine lives, Puss will meet the dog-pretending-to-be-a-cat Perro (Harvey Guillen), as well as the bounty-hunting Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her three ursine associates (voiced by Olivia Colman, Samson Kayo and Ray Winstone.)
Not screened in Annecy, acts two and three will also see the return of Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and the new villain Big Jack Horner, voiced by John Mulaney.
From the festival stage, the filmmakers made comparisons to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” explaining that Sergio Leone’s visual and narrative sense were key inspirations for “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” – a film that is, at the end of the day, also the story of outlaws circling one another in search for the same pot of gold.
“They’re going after this ultimate fairy tale prize, because there’s one wish that can be granted when you reach that wishing star,” says Swift. “There’s a great momentum because everybody feels like they have to have this wish, which really just leads to a great kind of action adventure.”