“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is as spry and light on its feet as its titular feline.
The inherently alluring paradox of the swashbuckling kitty from the “Shrek” universe remains firmly in place 11 years after his first solo feature. He’s a dashing adventurer, a charmer with the ladies, feared and renowned throughout the land — but he’s also unbearably adorable as he laps up milk from a shot glass with his pinky, sandpapery tongue. As always, the charismatic and sensitive Antonio Banderas finds just the right tone in exploring this furry animated figure’s suave and silly sides.
“The Last Wish” expands the roster of ridiculously talented supporting players from the Oscar-nominated 2011 original “Puss in Boots.” Joining Banderas and his longtime friend and co-star Salma Hayek Pinault are Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and John Mulaney, among many others. They bring a surprising amount of substance to what might have been a purely playful endeavor.
But of course, the fast-paced humor and elaborate visuals are the main draws of director Joel Crawford and co-director Januel Mercado’s film. The film’s aesthetics may rely too heavily on anime influences, especially during the action sequences, but the vibrant colors and rich textures are a delight. From the moss growing on a fearsome forest giant to the shiny silkiness of Puss’ whiskers blowing in the wind, “The Last Wish” offers a variety of eye-popping details. And it frequently features dramatic shadows and subtle dissolves to transition from past to present or one scene to the next.
The story begins with a debauched bacchanal (featuring kegs filled with leche) that’s more convincing than the opening orgy in “Babylon.” Puss in Boots is naturally front and center, singing his heart out, partying it up – but eventually, he must go on the run when he realizes that bounty hunter The Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura) is after him, and he’s down to the last of his nine lives. (The zippy montage revealing the many ways he’s died is packed with witty, little asides.) FYI for parents and caretakers of little kids: The Big Bad Wolf is essentially The Grim Reaper. He’s relentless, and he’s terrifying.
Faking his death, Puss seeks shelter at a cramped cat refuge run by Randolph’s sweetly doting Mama Luna. Watching the arrogant, preening feline struggle to assimilate into a mundane world of dry food and shared litter boxes is hilarious, and the angles through which we experience his reluctant transformation put us inside his head. But it’s here that Puss meets an unlikely ally: a scruffy, crazy-eyed Chihuahua pretending to be a cat because he has nowhere else to go. We come to know him as Perrito, and he’s played with scene-stealing sweetness by Harvey Guillen (“What We Do in the Shadows”). In a stacked voice cast, Guillen’s performance emerges as the unexpected highlight. Perrito’s unflappable innocence and enthusiasm in the face of danger are infectious, but he also provides the film with some of its most deeply emotional moments. Again, the darker parts of “The Last Wish” may disturb young viewers.
When Puss’ former rival and flame Kitty Softpaws shows up (voiced once again with sarcastic, flirtatious charm by Hayek Pinault), the three go on a mission to find the mythical Wishing Star to restore Puss’ nine lives. The magical map that takes them there suggests a wildly divergent and amusing variety of paths, depending on who’s holding it. But they’re not the only ones seeking the map and the power of the Wishing Star. Also on their tail are Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Pugh, Winstone, Colman, and Samson Kayo), who are now a bickering, Cockney-voiced crime syndicate straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie. (The idea of Winstone and Colman playing Pugh’s parents in any format is irresistible, and we need more of this.) And in the least developed supporting part, Mulaney plays the gluttonous gang boss “Big” Jack Horner, a towering figure who collects rare, fairy-tale objects like Cinderella’s glass slipper and baby unicorn horns.
After a roaring start, “The Last Wish” sags a bit in the midsection as it becomes clear that we’re in for a pretty standard quest in the script from Paul Fisher (“The Croods: A New Age”) and Tommy Swerdlow (2018’s “The Grinch”). Of course, everyone’s after everyone else, and they’re all after the same thing, with some funny and frightening obstacles along the way. But the film also manages to convey messages of selflessness and teamwork in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed or cloying. And the stellar voice performances and dazzling visuals keep things so engaging you won’t need a laser pointer or a catnip-stuffed mouse toy to entertain you.
Now playing in theaters.