I just saw Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and it was really good. It’s the best new film that I’ve seen in 2023, which indicates either how good it is or how bad my choices have been. January’s always a slow month for movies, of course, and now it’s February maybe good ones are starting to surface. The Last Wish is a children’s fantasy story, but it makes better use of its folkloric elements than Unwelcome, has a stronger love story than Babylon, and even contains eerier “horror” sequences than M3gan.
The story is that the titular Puss, voiced by Antonio Banderas in a parody of his Zorro performance, is down to the last of his nine lives and looks set to retire as one of many pets looked after by a cat lady. A magical map promises one wish to the person who finds the star that it leads to, however. So, accompanied by a doggy sidekick without a name and ex-fiancée Kitty Softpaws, and pursued by a range of characters also seeking the wish, he goes on a quest to reclaim his nine lives.
The Last Wish has a lot of characters, including a pie baron-cum-gangster version of Little Jack Horner (now “Big” Jack Horner, a name that kept reminding me of Burt Reynolds’ pornographer in Boogie Nights) and a dire wolf-esque bounty hunter whose entrance is always presaged by an eerie whistling, like wind through bones… Normally when a franchise film is this loaded with characters, it’s a clear sign that it’s overstuffed and therefore underwritten, but The Last Wish juggles all of them well, not one feeling extraneous or half-finished.
It accomplishes this in part by gently tweaking our ingrained knowledge of the fairy-tale repertory and its dynamics. Florence “Midsommar” Pugh, for instance, shows up as a Goldilocks working in harmony with the three bears, who serve as her found family of small-time crooks. (Ray Winstone and Olivia Colman play Papa and Mama Bear, respectively.) Jack Horner, meanwhile, is an entitled and remorseless (I hesitate to say Trumpian…) tycoon who in one of the movie’s funniest running gags gets his own Jiminy Cricket, a Jimmy Stewart-toned icon of ethics and morals whose relentless optimism about human nature is flayed bare by the purple-thumbed prick.
The dire wolf is genuinely a little frightening for a children’s character, his red eyes, elongated snout, menacing whistle, and implacable determination to end friend Puss provide a real threat. Yet he’s not too much, either.
The animation is gorgeous, incorporating a stark and stop-motion approach for action and battle scenes, feeling like a living comic book at times. The medieval-esque landscape is well-evoked and you get more of a sense of place than you do in some fantasy films. The world feels much richer and more multifaceted than that of Disney’s recent Strange World, the whole point of which was to provide a sense of profound depth and scale.
If the plot of The Last Wish is a little busy at times, that makes sense to its goal, which is as much to entertain tots on TV as an audience on a big screen. It’s a genre film where every element has been expertly handled, a franchise entry that’s a credit to its predecessors.
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