Everything has an expiration date, even the most beloved pillars of pop culture. Tom Brady won’t keep winning super bowls forever. Taylor Swift can’t keep releasing new music indefinitely. DreamWorks Animation can’t produce new Shrek movies until the end of time.
These endings are inarguable eventualities, despite the fact that so many people love Tom, Taylor and Shrek. So how do you know when it’s time to say goodbye?
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” seeks to answer this question. Astonishingly, it succeeds — and then some.
“The Last Wish” is the latest installment in DreamWorks’s beloved Shrek franchise and the second “Puss in Boots” spinoff. It’s also the first Shrek film to hit the big screen in over a decade. It seems to indicate the studio’s ambitions to revamp the Shrek cinematic universe. But kicking off a new Shrek era with a Puss in Boots film isn’t immediately auspicious. In the original Shrek films, Puss’s (Antonio Banderas, “Uncharted”) sole purpose is to deliver braggadocious one-liners and engage in raucous fight sequences. He’s a lively addition to the supporting cast of fairytale characters, but not exactly protagonist material.
“The Last Wish” initially confirms that impression. The film opens with Puss at his best, stunning crowds with his swordplay and easily defeating much larger opponents. His reckless lifestyle may be uninteresting, but it makes sense. As a cat, he has nine lives, which enables his carefree adventures. That all changes about 15 minutes into the film, after he uses up his last extra life in an altercation with a giant. Soon after this heavy turn of events, Puss has a run-in with a terrifying bounty-hunting wolf (Wagner Moura, “Narcos”). It’s a fight he narrowly survives.
Confronted head-on with his own glaring mortality, the last of his self-assured charm falls away. Puss, despite his feline exterior, takes on a deep humanness. He abandons his weapons and costumes and shies into retirement as an average housecat. Seeing Puss so vulnerable makes him much more relatable. Not many people have been swashbuckling outlaws, but we’ve all been uncertain and afraid. Suddenly, we’re not just rooting for Puss — we’re empathizing with him. He’s become real protagonist material.
At this point, there is only one thing that can force Puss out of retirement — the restoration of his full nine lives. When he hears about a magical wishing star that promises just that, he hesitantly steps back into the world for one final quest. It is here that “The Last Wish” begins in earnest.
Joined by his wiley paramour Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, “House of Gucci”) and trailed closely by a host of other fairytale characters, Puss sets off towards the wishing star. Their quest takes them through a colorful enchanted forest where they encounter everything from magical rose gardens to mysterious crystalline caverns. The journey is exciting and flashy, but it’s also terrifying. Puss is overly cautious and mistrustful. Without extra lives to spare, even the most whimsical of adversaries transform into life-or-death threats. On top of it all, he’s still haunted by the sinister bounty hunter, whose glowing eyes and chilling leitmotif follow him relentlessly.
When the film reaches its climax, the focus isn’t on wishes, villains or fairytale characters. The story comes down to a simple struggle between Puss and his own anxieties. The resolution isn’t a bombastic defeat of a “big bad.” Instead, closure only comes once Puss confronts his fear of death.
Mortality is a heavy topic, especially for an animated movie about a cat. But the film remains highly palatable by balancing the darker themes with thoughtful moments of levity and fun action sequences. The viewing experience is enhanced further by gorgeous animation reminiscent of “Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The reduced frame rate and vivid backgrounds make the familiar fairytale set pieces feel fresh and immersive.
“The Last Wish” is a breath of fresh air after a year of dull animated cash grabs. It’s proof that quality stories can still exist within larger franchises, and it places new pressure on the other big animation studios. If the follow-up to an unmemorable spinoff can sit at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s difficult to keep excusing low-quality sequels and reboots. There’s hope that “The Last Wish” may even herald a new era of animated films where quality is not an anomaly but an expectation.
“The Last Wish” also speaks to the Shrek franchise’s complicated future. Puss’s journey mirrors DreamWorks’s own relationship with the Shrek films. Both Puss and the studio have had a great run, but are approaching an ending point. After a 10-year hiatus, continuing the Shrek story doesn’t feel like a necessity. By releasing “The Last Wish” at all, the studio must have been forced to consider the worthwhileness of the endeavor. It seems that the studio came to the same conclusion as Puss himself — despite an approaching end point, they’re going to make the absolute most of the time they’ve got left.
It’s exciting to think that DreamWorks still has Shrek stories left to tell. And if “The Last Wish” is any indication, it’s quite possible that the best is still yet to come.
Daily Arts Writer Lola D’Onofrio can be reached at email@example.com.