More than a decade after “Shrek” prequel/spinoff “Puss in Boots,” the flamboyant feline is up to his old tricks — but has yet to meet the computer-animated ogre whose party he’s destined to crash in “Shrek 2.” As that series wore on, the “Shrek” franchise took on so many popular side characters that by the fourth outing, there was hardly room left to swing a cat.
A knee-high hero who walks, talks and swashbuckles upright, Puss was one of the few tagalongs rich enough to warrant his own origin story. Now, director Joel Crawford (“The Croods: A New Age”) goes dark, bringing the fearless cat face to face with his own mortality. By forcing Puss to contemplate his priorities, the sequel more than justifies its own existence, while paving the way for how his path meets the big green guy’s.
The stakes may be more serious this time around, but the film’s every bit as amusing as you’d expect from the clever-as-ever team at DreamWorks Animation, which has had a bumpy few years, taking something of a back seat to Illumination over at Universal (“Minions” maven Chris Meledandri serves as executive producer here). “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” marks DWA’s best film since the “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy, reflecting some of the lessons learned on that series, including the notion that cartoon characters get a lot more interesting if they’re not immortal.
Co-written by Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow with charmingly Spanish-embellished dialogue throughout, this fairytale-adjacent adventure opens with Puss losing his eighth life. This kitty’s too cocky to realize it at first, but the town vet gives him a rough recap of his previous deaths, which makes for a hilarious (for us) and sobering (for Puss) montage of all the ways his grandiose ego (so perfectly captured by “The Mask of Zorro” star Antonio Banderas’ voice work) has endangered him till now.
Cartoon cats can stand all kinds of abuse — just ask Tom, after years of Jerry’s violent shenanigans — but it’s probably best not to test fate if standing in Puss’ shoes, especially when pursued by a big-bad-wolf bounty hunter (as Wolf, “Narcos” boss Wagner Moura gives a terrifically menacing turn). Crawford stages Puss’ first run-in with this reaper like a scene straight out of a Sergio Leone movie, the way Frank Miller might have drawn it for one of his “Daredevil” comics: all strong poses, extreme angles and high-contrast graphic effects. (Composer Heitor Pereira delivers the Morricone-style music to match.)
After that dramatic showdown reduces Puss to a quivering scaredy-cat, our hero scampers off to live with Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a self-described “cat fancier” whose feline-infested home always has room for one more stray. Desperate and humbled, Puss buries his cavalier hat, cape and boots in the yard and tries to blend in, meeting a nameless mutt in kitty disguise among Mama Luna’s three dozen or so rescues.
The movie keeps piling on characters as it goes — from Goldi (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears crime family to good-boy-gone-bad Jack Horner (John Mulaney) — until such time that the ensemble has swollen to “Shrek”-like levels. But don’t fret! Mother Goose reject Jack Horner makes for a lame villain. But as complicated as the plot gets, it’s all grounded by characters with clearly defined desires, which makes sense, since they’re all seeking the same thing: A shooting star has landed in the Dark Forest, and whoever reaches it first is entitled to a wish.
Puss wants his lives back. The others, including Puss’ former paramour Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault), have equally compelling motives. Only Puss’ mangy canine amigo (Harvey Guillén) seems content with what he’s got, which you’d better believe is going to rub off on the others. Still, it takes a sharp script to do so in such a surprising way, and that’s more than most toons can wish for.
The movie feels most inspired in its first half-hour, when Puss get shaken out of his comfort zone, which is accompanied by a huge shift in visual style for a DreamWorks toon: Eschewing traditional CG codes, production designer Nate Wragg aims for an expressionistic storybook feel, with no lines and a refreshing rejection of photorealistic detail. Instead of distracting us with how lifelike Puss’ fur follicles look, the crew embraces a more painterly approach that still allows the virtual camera to ricochet through space during action sequences. That same dynamism was a signature of the earlier film, with its swooping rooftop chases, that looks infinitely better in this new style.
It’s alarming how quickly computer-animated toons start to look dated. Most audiences won’t pick up on it, but the character rigs are vastly improved here. In the “Shrek” movies, the shoulders so often looked weird, whereas this time around, humans and animals alike have a much greater and more convincing range of postures. Add to that the painterly upgrade, and “Puss” will have paved the way for an all-new aesthetic when the studio decides to give “Shrek” a reboot.