March 10, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco

There must be something in the popcorn, for how else could “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” a sequel to a spin-off, be so good? After its December 2022 release, the film earned a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and an Oscar nomination. Currently, the film is ranked No. 101 on Letterboxd’s Top 250 Narrative Feature Films of All Time list, beating out “Casablanca,” “The Shining,” and even “Vertigo.”

How on earth did DreamWorks pull this off? Directors Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado found a sweet spot. “Puss in Boots” appeals to just about everyone with eyes and ears, and there’s a very real chance it will take home Best Animated Feature this weekend at the Oscars.

The film opens with our beloved Puss (Antonio Banderas) losing his eighth life. He had been on his own, living as an outlaw…or a hero (depending on who you ask). Now on his last life, Puss lays down his sword and surrenders to a life of domesticity within Mama Luna’s Cat Sanctuary. As he lies surrounded by lap cats, litter boxes, and kibble, Puss laments crusades passed and lets himself slip into obscurity. Cue “The End” by The Doors (no, literally).

Fortunately for us, the stabby tabby can’t resist a good quest, even despite his ninth life. When he learns (via Goldilocks and her three bears) that there is a wish-granting star, he again dons his trademarked cape, hat, and feather for the chance to get his lives back.

He is joined by Perrito (Harvey Guillen) who tragically wiggled his way into the cat sanctuary seeking a place to belong. Puss also reunites with Kitty Softpaws (Selma Hayek) for the first time since leaving her at the altar. Together, the three of them – dubbed Team Friendship – must outrun Goldi (Florence Pugh), her family of bears, and Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney) through the dark forest to be the first to reach the wishing star.

The film weaves in some mature elements, catering adeptly to the adults in the audience, just like what the Shrek movies always do well. Parents will be quick to catch the references and sneaky jokes woven throughout the story. The film is full of references to children’s stories.

The major antagonist, Jack Horner, is hilariously based on a little-known nursery rhyme (something about sticking his thumb in a pie), which has given him some big-time self-esteem issues. He carries around a Mary Poppins bag full of magical weapons and tricks such as unicorn horns, poison apples, and some of the shrinking/growing treats from Alice in Wonderland. He also pulls out Ethical Bug, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jiminy Cricket, who deems Big Jack irredeemably evil.

Puss is less afraid of Jack, however, and more of death himself, embodied by the Big Bad Wolf who stalks his every move (Wagner Moura). This makes for some very dark sequences. At one point in the film, Puss is so overwhelmed by the prospect of outrunning death that he has a panic attack, and is comforted by Perrito. Crawford wanted audiences to know that “these feelings are real and important,” quite a phenomenal feat for a children’s movie.

Crawford also admitted to drawing inspiration from some classic genre films. The western-feeling standoff scene comes from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Most of the action sequences are animated differently from the rest of the franchise, and Crawford credits “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo” for the anime feel.  

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” offers a meditation on life and death as Puss ponders his own mortality, ultimately suggesting viewers find something to appreciate in their lives as they are. Perrito’s character is an unrelenting positive force, and Goldi’s “found family” dynamic is heartwarming. Something about the film tugs at the heartstrings as each character discovers things to be thankful for. Sometimes, the things that you wish for most are already right in front of you.

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is available to stream now.

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