Though he was making a sequel to a film that was already spun off from a franchise, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” director Joel Crawford wasn’t terribly concerned with following up on a larger legacy. He knew he wanted to maintain the “elevated comedy” — especially the adult “jokes that would go over kids’ heads” — from the “Shrek” movies and 2011’s “Puss in Boots.” Visually, however, Crawford felt that this tale 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,” he says. “We had the opportunity to go into new territory: this idea of being dropped into a fairy tale. You can see the brushstrokes and it looks as if you’re in a moving painting.”
But the new art style of “The Last Wish” is about more than just intensifying 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 on the last of his nine lives and treks into the Dark Forest to locate a mystical wishing star to restore his lifespan. To complement those story beats, 2D inspirations were incorporated into the 3D animation, which Crawford says, “told the story even more specifically. Puss in Boots has this fairy tale point of view of, ‘I’m gonna live forever.’”
“You’re getting away from the literal and going toward the impressionistic,” Crawford continues. For example, early in the film, Puss fights a giant using a massive church bell as a weapon. The screen shifts into a flat yellow card when the giant gets hit in the face, with white circles emanating from the bell to represent a ringing sound, imitating something you might see in a comic book. A similar technique is used later on in Puss’ confrontation with the Wolf (Wagner Moura), a bounty hunter with a horrifying secret identity. As Crawford puts it, “Puss is feeling fear for the first time.” Therefore, the background of the shot goes red in a moment that is certainly earned but still feels grim for a children’s movie.
“Grim is the key word. In expanding the ‘Shrek’ fairytale word, we were inspired by Grimm fairytales,” Crawford says. He’s referring to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who in early 19th century Germany wrote twisted versions of classic stories — for example, their “Cinderella” ends with the stepsisters’ eyes pecked out by birds. “Those were always cautionary tales that took you somewhere dark to make you appreciate the light.
“We needed a character to snap Puss out of his arrogance, and a lot of times the wolf was the personification of fear in those Grimm fairy tales. So it felt right that the wolf would be this bounty hunter,” Crawford says.
“And when I say the words ‘bounty hunter,’ one other inspiration was the spaghetti Western. The Sergio Leone, ‘Man With No Name,’ kind of thing,” Crawford adds. “That was a way that we could switch between different tones. This isn’t just a fairy tale; there’s real stakes to this movie.”
The depth of visual and narrative references and the performances of a knockout voice cast — including Salma Hayek, Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone and John Mulaney — were enhanced by a plethora of details and Easter eggs. Some were fun and easy to pick out, such as cameos from “Shrek” characters Pinocchio and Gingy.
Others were weightier. “When Puss is fighting the giant and swinging this bell around, the bell tolls eight times,” Crawford points out. One for each life lost thus far — because death is always around the corner.