The Shrek universe proves it still has stories to tell with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. The sequel to the Antonio Banderas-led spin-off gives the DreamWorks franchise a soft reimagining that makes us excited for more.
Recreating the canvas on which these stories are told, telling a truly heartfelt fairytale in a new animated style, is what really hooked us back in. Banderas’ Puss returns as the outlaw who hangs up his boots when he encounters an inescapable foe: death, since he’s on his last life after he burned through the previous eight on heroic missions to further his legend. Retiring to a home for cats, he loses his way thanks to the trauma of barely escaping with his life—and he doesn’t want to deal it, with no matter how much his new doggie companion tries to help. What We Do in the Shadows’ Harvey Guillén plays Perrito the therapy dog in training, who tags along with Puss on one last mission to find the wishing star in order to get more lives; along the way, they encounter old friends like Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and meet some new enemies, too.
io9 recently talked to Puss in Boots: The Last Wish directors Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado to discuss the film’s themes, the way it re-imagines the style of the Shrek Universe and tells a very needed story, and our love for Perrito.
Sabina Graves, io9: I am so excited to speak to you both. I watched the film about a month ago and made it a point to see it twice in theaters—I absolutely loved it. The first time, I saw it with my therapy dog Gus Gus and it was very special. What were the conversations that happened when you were coming up with this very specific story as the sequel?
Joel Crawford: It’s interesting. As we were coming up with with this story, we were less focused on it feeling like a sequel and more focused on the big story we could tell with Puss in Boots. This idea that Puss is on the last of his nine lives [is] absurd and fun. It’s a fairy tale kind of premise. But for us, we really wanted to have this story be meaningful—that it can be the expression of how amazing life can be if we just appreciate it, and appreciate who we share it with. And so that was the beginning of our conversation. We also wanted this to feel fun. It should feel like a celebration. You should have joy watching it.
Januel Mercado: Joel and I love the character Puss in Boots and [the] Shrek universe. And so even just speaking about Puss as a character, we were really excited—he’s such a lovable Zorro as a cat, and [is a] fan favorite [who] stole [his] scenes in Shrek 2. We were really pumped at the challenge; everyone knows this character and it’s so fun at the surface: he’s invincible and he talks big and he’s arrogant in the most funny ways. But what if we expanded the spectrum of emotion and got deeper into his character and saw him make mistakes, have his flaws, have regrets, and be lonely? These are things that we were just like, “Wow, why don’t we flesh it out even further to [be] almost more human, where we can all relate to this,” that [felt most] exciting.
Crawford: And when we presented that story to Antonio Banderas, he was really excited to show the world another side of Puss in a fun journey.
io9: That’s incredible. One of the big things that stood out to me was just how scary the film can be because the antagonist in a way is death. Puss has the sort of confrontations that bring us down to earth a bit more about life. How far you did you want to go with how scary death would be?
Crawford: Puss in Boots is such a big, larger-than-life superhero. We’ve never seen him show fear. And he sings a song about it the beginning: “He’s a fearless hero”—never been touched by a blade. We wanted this story to be about what is true strength? What does it truly mean to be brave? And that strength comes in admitting vulnerability. And so for us, we put the fear, these moments that are scary moments in order for Puss in Boots to kind of be knocked down from his invincible kind of point of view, but also for the audience to actually feel real emotion on this journey. When you experience the dark and scary, you appreciate the light and positive and joyful. Puss is experiencing anxiety and fear in the middle of the movie. So we wanted to make sure we didn’t do it in a comedic way, but that as human beings, we could all look at this cat who talks and wears boots but somehow relate to the same emotions he’s experiencing. And in that fear, you can feel the hope when the dog comes in and rests his head on Puss’ stomach.
io9: Totally, I mean that moment kind of went viral online. I remember seeing people share that clip and how relatable it is seeing an emotional support dog know what to do. I think it speaks to how powerful the film is in facing that vulnerability and finding your shared family support system too. Can you talk a bit about bringing in Kitty Softpaws back into the fold with Salma Hayek, introducing Perrito, and even how Goldilocks and the bears mirror one another?
Mercado: Yeah, you got me all in a reflective, introspective mood right now. This is the deeper stuff that we do love in the storytelling because we’ve all been there. There’s the metaphor of the loneliness and anxiety you feel that that feels like a prison that is in ourselves that we kind of create. I’m not dismissing it at all, but that’s because we all go through it. That’s what’s kind of easy about it, where it’s like, why does this feel so hard to reach out for help and to make connections? You [can] kind of just spiral sometimes having that feeling—and then to just remember to reach out or remember your connections with your loved ones, and how much [it helps] when you finally break through or connect when you talk to someone. I have this quite often where it’s like, “Oh, I don’t know why that was so hard for me to do.” And when I finally did it I was so happy and it’s like, I’m not alone and people love me and I deserve love, you know?
Crawford: And that’s that’s the journey, of course. We have this character Puss in Boots, he’s a solo act here. He goes from town to town, and he kind of runs from connections. And so Kitty Softpaws comes back into his life, and when he’s finally real with her, he benefits from that love. And then there’s this dog Perrito who only wants to see the other people happy. He only cares about others.
io9: And Harvey is so perfect for that voice.
Crawford: It really for us was important to to find the perfect casting that felt like “How do you express what we love about dogs?” Yeah, and they are only interested in us. They know they are loyal, they’re there for you. And Harvey Guillén is the perfect voice, because he is the most wonderful, genuine, funny, but just honest person. And so it was, “Yes, this has to be the character.” And really then like Florence Pugh playing Goldilocks with the Three Bears, that family is such a wonderful thing that they start off [and] you think they’re going to be the villains in the story, but you discover there’s so much more to them. And Goldi discovers that families don’t have to look a certain way. And all that matters is there’s love, [and] with that comes this appreciation about family. There’s so many themes that we wanted to to express in this movie that we wanted the audience to feel. And all of these wonderful characters, accompanied by the very talented cast, really deliver those messages.
io9: Amazing. So I wanted to switch gears just for the final question here and talk about the animation style. I really love how it just plussed up the experience of seeing the lush, sort of watercolor fairy tale moments across the board—but also in the action sequences with the comic book splash like pages. Can you talk a bit about incorporating that and if that’s going to be a style that’s going to be leaned into a bit more going forward?
Crawford: You know, we both come from hand-drawn animation. We were story artists [at DreamWorks] for many years. And so there’s something about drawing that you’re expressing an emotion but with your hand, with your specific way of seeing the world, and we wanted this movie to feel not literal, but impressionistic. Nate Wragg, our production designer, really held this idea of “What if it look like you were dropped into a fairy tale painting?” And by doing that, you’re kind of freeing up the way you can tell the story. You can have, like you’re saying, when the giant gets hit by the bell in the background, it goes to a yellow hard card. And then when when Puss is fighting the wolf, there’s a red flash in the background and the audience is experiencing things not literally, but emotionally in impressionistic leaps. And then there’s the animation style that we also push.
Mercado: Our head [of] character animation, Ludo Bouancheau, is a big fan of anime as well. And we are always heavily inspired by the filmmaking cinematography that anime stories have had. So Ludo was excited to be like, “Oh yeah, let’s do that. Let’s play with that in our story.” And you know, we’re always talking about how it serves the emotion of the story. This animation style is more visceral, right? You’re just even taking the example of a typical animation drawing in flat 2D—where, oh, I’m pointing at you like this, right? And then to take that animation filter you could actually play with the lenses and made it more dynamic.
io9: Yes, like in the moment where Puss duels Death and you see the impacts of the blade drawn on as action slashes hit after hit.
Mercado: The splash of color in the graphic red paints another layer that is a more impactful, and you’re seeing the impressionistic way of showing that emotion. That’s we always wanted to push.
io9: That is so cool! Even moments where you see some of the internal reactions around like Puss when he becomes alert, for example, and when stuff is coming near—that really kind of just draws you in.
Mercado: It’s all additive and serves to amplify the experience and pull you deeper in. And so I’m so happy to hear that that is exactly what you were feeling.
io9: Yes. I’m rooting for y’all during awards season. I also wanted to quickly know, where are the Perrito toys? I couldn’t find one at Universal [Studios].
Mercado: Oh—I know.
Crawford: Yeah, we got to send you one. We do have these adorable Perrito plushies [at DreamWorks]. I know you have a therapy animal but I think the world also needs a therapy animal.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is available now on digital platforms and will be released on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD February 28.
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