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Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Directors: Joel Crawford, Januel Mercado (USA, Japan). Year of Release: 2022

The opening titles tell us that this story is a fairy tale, so it’s appropriate that we start in a castle. Puss in Boots is hosting a party to celebrate, well him, really. He is a cat of arrogance and swagger, and – as he insists on repeatedly telling us – modesty. The party is in full flow, with barrels flowing with the finest cream, when the governor, and owner of the castle, enters demanding to know what is going on. Puss swashbuckles the governor away, and the townsfolk sing about his glories.

The commotion wakes up the God of the mountains, a massive creature, who is still no match for Puss’s swordsmanship. But as Puss is basking in the glory of another glorious victory, a church bell falls onto his head and he is whisked off to a doctor (and part time barber). The doctor pronounces him dead, which would be very unfortunate if Puss were a human being. But, Good News, Puss is a cat, and has nine lives. Bad News, that was Puss’s eighth life, so he’ll now have to be extra careful.

On doctor’s orders, Puss is sent to live with Mama Luna, a crazy cat woman, whose house is full of straycats (plus a chihuahua dressed as a cat, but we’ll get to him). Puss buries his boot, hat and sword outside the house, and joins the regime of regulated meal times and absolute conformity. He is given bootees to wear and the name “Pickles”. Life with Mama Luna is like life in an Old Folks’ home, with everything done for you. In the lack of anything else to do, Puss grows a grey beard.

In a bar, Puss has a literal brush with Death – listed in the script as the Big Bad Wolf, bur draped in the same cowl worn by the character in the Seventh Seal. Snarling and slavering, Death lets Puss know that he’s on his case, and whenever he appears, the sky and landscape turn black and blood red. Death wields sharp scythes towards anyone who looks slightly frightened, and would be a fairly terrifying figure in any film. Lord knows how he affects the kids in his key demographic.

Because this is not just a film about beloved fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters, with some pretty graphics for the kids. It is about all of these, but it’s also about existential dread and the fear of growing old. Puss’s time in Mama Luna’s home for cats is arguably more disturbing to him than being continually pursued by a sinister figure with sharp teeth and a black cloak. An end to his existence may be bad, but is it worse than a life of conformity?

Which is why, when the gangland boss Goldilocks and her three bears come looking for Puss to steal them a map, he ditches any thoughts of boring retirement. The map should lead to somewhere where you will be granted a wish. Ostensibly Puss is motivated by the chance of getting some of his lives back. but it is clear that he craves any sort of excitement and would probably have got involved even if there were no destination.

Puss is joined – whether he wants it or not – by a nameless chihuahua with aspirations to be a therapy dog. The dog, which eventually attains the name Perrito, is lonely and eager to please, and it is to the film’s eternal credit that he doesn’t become very irritating very quickly. Puss and Perrito are also soon accompanied by Puss’s one time love Kitty Softpaws. They have old scores to settle, although it is a moot point which of them jilted the other at the altar.

In their quest to realise their dreams, our heroes are confronted with adversaries plucked from fairy tales. We’ve already mentioned Goldilocks and the bears, an East End gang trying to find their boss some sort of familial resolution. And then there’s Big Jack Horner (né Little Jack Horner), a spoiled overgrown kid with a bag full of magic tricks who just wants more power. A Jiminy Cricket type character tries to act as Jack’s conscience but gives up in desperation very early on.

The least interesting aspect of the film is the plot. Blah blah, dark and scary forest, Blah blah life lessons, Blah blah, Yay Team Friendship. Some of this is presumably there for the kids, but so is the Big Bad Wolf, who has hopefully scared them shitless enough that they’ll not be taken in by the bland feel-good message. This is a film where the journey is more important than the destination. Much better to enjoy the laughs than to worry about what it’s all supposed to mean.

I have somehow gone through life neither having seen any of the Puss In Boots films, nor the Shrek films (was PiB in more than one?) in which he first appears. This is nothing I’m particularly proud of, it just is what it is. But it did mean that I came into the film completely fresh, and probably missed many of references to previous films (just as many of the younger viewers presumably missed the references to Apocalypse Now, Shane, Scarface and many other old people’s films).

And can I just remark upon the acting royalty turning up for this film “just for kids”. The people appearing in the film are not just A-list, they’re also credible indie actors. Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek are joined by Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman and Ray Winstone. All of them enjoy themselves, without being too clever or self-important. If the aim of the film was to have an engaging storyline and some good jokes, The Last Wish succeeds on its own terms.

This is not to say that this is the Best Film Ever. There are certain limitations with the format. Having said this, what makes the film funny – and slightly poignant – is the fact that it does not strain to be Deep and Meaningful. A film which concentrates its focus on musing on mortality is unlikely to be much fun. This one puts the fun in the forefront, but slips the existential angst through the back door. This is exactly how things should be.

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