Hide the catnip and pass the leche when that swashbuckling fairy tale feline known as DreamWorks Animation’s Puss in Boots swings back into theaters this month after an 11-year hiatus from the silver screen.
Following in the paw prints of Puss in Boots, the popular 2011 Shrek spinoff that showcased the vocal talents of Antonio Banderas in the heroic lead and Salma Hayek as the cat burglar Kitty Softpaws, DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots: The Last Wish lands in a lukewarm box office marketplace much in need of a bonafide hit. Banderas and Hayek are both back in a rousing animated gem which takes advantage of modern CG technologies lovingly paired with more traditional 2D techniques.
Running Out of Lives
The colorful adventure is directed by the talented and Golden Globe-nominated Joel Crawford, who helmed The Croods: A New Age, and co-directed by Januel Mercado from a screenplay by Paul Fisher (The LEGO Ninjago Movie). This new entry in the Shrekiverse saga is a lavish spectacle featuring a supporting cast of fairy tale characters including Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Jack Horner, and the Big Bad Wolf. Rounding out the voice actors are Harvey Guillén, Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Wagner Moura, Ray Winstone, John Mulaney, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Anthony Mendez and Samson Kayo.
The plotline finds Puss in distress after learning that eight of his nine lives are gone and he must embark on a quest to find the fabled wishing star to replenish his lost life supply. Accompanying him on his existential odyssey are Kitty Softpaws and Perrito (Guillén), a hyper therapy pooch disguised as a cat, all while being pursued by a host of wish-wanting villains and the sinister grim reaper.
When Crawford first approached the project, there were a number of ingredients that got him truly excited to reintroduce these iconic animated characters using a storybook aesthetic.
“DreamWorks has been trying to find the right next chapter for Puss in Boots for over a decade,” he explained. “To DreamWorks’ credit, they didn’t just want to pump out another sequel. They saw this as an expansion of not only the Puss in Boots world, but also the Shrek universe. They had nuggets of ideas where Puss in Boots had burned through eight of his nine lives. The two elements that popped right out to me were that it was a fantastical absurd idea, then at the heart of it, being like humans gifted with only one life, there’s also so much reality. I wanted to base everything around that premise.”
He adds, “Nate Wragg, the production designer, really spearheaded this fairy tale painting look. Puss is oblivious to the fact that he’s blown through his lives and we wanted this to feel like you’re along for the ride. Then when he realizes he’s down to his last, there’s an interesting tonal shift.”
Wragg actually worked as an artist on the original Puss in Boots and has since lent his talents to The Croods: A New Age and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Wragg is eager for audiences to witness their handiwork on the big screen when it arrives at Christmastime.
“They want this all over the world in every theater,” says Wragg. “Since a lot of this movie was made ‘work from home,’ a lot of the production was done on desktop computers. Once the creative production staff finally got to see it on the big screen, they were blown away — even with shots they’d been working on for a long time themselves.”
A Purrfect Hero
Since over a decade had passed since we last visited Puss, one crucial obstacle in the development process was defining who the target audience for the pic would be. Was it the Shrek and Puss in Boots fans who remember those movies and grew up with them, or was it aimed at people who had never seen the previous film because, maybe, they weren’t born yet?
“We really approached it as it should stand alone, to where if you haven’t seen them, this movie inspires you to go find out what those are,” Crawford notes. “And if you have seen them, there’s an expectation.”
“Animation has this immersive quality that takes people from all walks of life and puts them into the shoes (or boots!) of a character and allows you to go on a journey with them and empathize and learn,” says the director. “Combining our painterly style with the goal of expanding the universe, and these fairy tale characters that have a different spin from what you’d expect, you also get a surprising depth that’s revealed.”
“I think it plays into what you want out of a good sequel. You want to tap into everything that’s beloved by the fanbase who knows Puss in Boots,” Wragg points out. “Like an Indiana Jones movie, you have fans that love that character and want to see them in the next adventure. So with Puss you have Antonio, who’s just brilliant, and you have this character that’s fun and action-packed and charming. But then to keep it contemporary and have it be a story worth telling, you have to find out, how does the character grow?”
A Sparking Fairy Tale Look
Redefining the boundaries of what a CG film can ultimately look like, Crawford, Mercado and Wragg harnessed new advancements in CG technology to reintroduce this fairy tale world in new and refreshing ways.
“When the Shrek movies came out, CG animation was in an interesting space,” says Wragg. “Part of the spectacle of it was, ‘Wow it looks so real, even though it’s not. Look what the computer can do.’ We’ve now been able to swing the pendulum back into a space where animation originated, which was an artistic expression. Bambi’s backgrounds were watercolored. It was beautiful but it didn’t have to be photoreal.”
But that immersive look doesn’t come easy and requires a judicious artist’s hand and technical people that understand the artist’s need to get that style into the computer.
“We used the best of what we can do technologically to reduce the image’s complexity in driving it to realism. It allowed it to be a bit more impressionistic in an illustrated way that helps it feel like a contemporary fairy tale. It’s not a moving painting, but it feels illustrated in how it’s composed,” he explains.
“In a lot of ways we mashed up a Spaghetti Western with a fairy tale, so you get those beautiful Western compositions and staging opportunities, but then you get these fantastical locations born out of your imagination. Then when you put characters like Puss and Kitty Softpaws right in the middle you just want more time with them on screen.”
As a veteran production designer, Wragg became incredibly inspired because he knew he was going to try and elevate a design that maybe needed a fresh coat of paint.
“There are things about the Shrek movies that were wonderful with the pop culture references, but those can also feel dated depending on where that reference came from and who remembers it,” notes Wragg. “I got to take everything charming and hilarious about Puss in Boots, but it didn’t have to also have the pop culture bits. If anything, we got to go deeper into the Shrek fairy tale world and expand on that without there having to be a joke on a popular musician or celebrity.”
While carrying the weight of a darker thematic tone, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish also offers an organic storytelling rhythm and fluidity.
“We wanted to bring the audience to where Puss in Boots’ head space is,” says Crawford. “He’s this larger than life icon. He’s almost become like a rock star. There’s a purposeful momentum to the story. The camerawork, along with fast pace cutting, is all smooth and choreographed. We had fun with the music and sound effects all synching up to the rhythm of the opening fight and you feel like you’re watching something Puss has done a thousand times. Until he gets killed by the bell dropping on him. That’s the only thing off rhythm. Then he gets the bad news from the doctor and we slow down to have him live in this moment.”
Not the Same Old CG
Since the last Shrek film, 2010’s Shrek Forever After, audiences have become more sophisticated with CG animation and seem to be looking for the next evolution of the art form, something Crawford was aware of even from the pre-production phase.
“There’s almost a craving for tangibility now, especially from younger viewers. With CG advancing, it makes things perfect and I spent a lot of time adding back the human touch. In our animation, we actually took off motion blur so that it stutters. Then our head of animation would hand draw 2D techniques over the CG lighting. That really made this beautiful hybrid that brought back the hand of the artist. The computer wants to make every frame perfect and blend those frames together so it’s all smooth. That all expands our toolbox to tell these stories.”
Per Crawford, The Last Wish tackles some heavy topics relating to death and mortality, but the filmmakers were united in wanting this movie to feel like a joyous celebration of life.
“Coming into this movie we promised Universal that it’s going to be funny,” he says. “There was a lot of trust from the studio. When we tested it in a preview screening we were worried it would be too scary for kids. At the end of the movie there was this sense of joy and celebration. One of the kids was asked what this movie is about and he said, ‘It’s about appreciating your life!’ It’s trusting that you can have dark or scary moments, as long as the end message comes through. The studio was right there with us the whole time. It’s been a great kind of partnership.
The director adds, “Our goal was to dip into dark areas so we can feel that light. Our screenwriter Paul Fisher was so great at not being heavy handed. Also, our voice actors were very involved. Salma Hayek is an amazing actress. She has such a natural way of knowing how her character would view the other character. The relationship between Kitty Softpaws, Puss in Boots, and Perro, I attribute a lot of it to Antonio Banderas, Harvey Guillén and Salma Hayek.
“Antonio knows the character way better than we do. He’s been playing him for almost 20 years. It’s so organic the way Puss In Boots comes out of Antonio. He can transition from this charm and comedy into vulnerable reality and surprise us with the way he would read things.”
The film’s veteran producer Mark Swift (The Croods: A New Age, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie) who has been with DreamWorks since the early days of Prince of Egypt, points out, “It has been more than a decade since the last Puss in Boots movie, and we all wanted to take advantage of the latest advances in technology to tell a new and meaningful story about this fascinating character,” he notes. “Our movie is basically about someone who becomes of their own mortality, which makes them see the value of their life and realize what’s truly important in this world.”
Swift hopes audiences will rediscover the charm and magnetic personality of the film’s main character, who is going through a tough time facing his own mortality in this adventure. The producer is also quite fond of the new characters introduced in The Final Wish. “We were very fortunate to have Harvey Guillén voice the role of Perro,” he notes. “We wanted this sweet dog to be the opposite of every other character in the movie. We have this spaghetti western where all these outlaw criminals are trying to win this prize, and then we have this little unwanted dog who has had a very unfortunate life. He has every reason to be cynical, but he is the one character who looks at what he has and is grateful. He’s that sort of innocent who shares his wisdom without trying to change the others.”
Catnip for the Masses
Wragg admits that there’s clearly an appetite and a love for more adventures with these wonderfully developed characters, and the ending of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish certainly points to a return journey to the fantasy lands of Far Far Away and Shrek’s Duloc swamp.
“My hope is that it ushers us back into this world and these characters and maybe there’s a new twist to it,” says Wragg. “We’ll have to see what Universal and DreamWorks want to do. At its core, it’s just a reminder of how much people love those characters, they’re timeless and they have aged well.”
For Crawford, the most fun aspect of making any animated movie are the surprises that pop up along the way.
“It takes so many people to make these movies,” he concludes. “It’s such a collaborative process. The end result is more beautiful than I could have ever pictured at the beginning. What I hope people come away with is just like that ten-year-old kid said at the preview. We all get one life so make it count and really appreciate who’s in your life.”
Universal releases DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots: The Last Wish in theaters on December 21.