Friday, March 31, 2023

Animation Defenestration: The one that lost to Claymation Pinocchio



Title: Puss In Boots: The Last Wish aka Puss In Boots 2

What Year?: 2022

Classification: Weird Sequel

Rating: That’s Good! (4/4)


As I write this, I have been recovering from a shock: Everything Everywhere All At Once, a film I went out of the way to review while it was in theaters, actually swept the Oscars. The obvious joke is that I usually deal with the opposite of “best” pictures, which is certainly true but for far more complicated reasons. In fact, I do have one area of interest that has regularly brought me within ranting distance of the annual awards show, and that is the animation category. In any given year, I have usually seen most if not all of the films up for the award, so of course, I am almost always able to say that the “winner” is the wrong choice. That will serve as an intersecting arc to a movie I have been trying not to review, despite already watching it into the ground. Because I have no better plan, I’m surrendering and reviewing Puss In Boots: The Last Wish. And yeah, it’s great.

Our story begins with narration of a star falling to Earth, bearing a single wish for anyone who can reach it. We then catch up with Puss In Boots, who gets himself squished when a party in his own honor turns into a fight with a Pan’s Labyrinth pseudo-Celtic giant. It turns out that this doesn’t mean any more that going to the penalty box, as every cat in this universe really does have 9 lives. However, it turns out that his latest death is Number 8. He is still unphased, until he gets his tail handed to him by a mysterious anthropomorphic wolf. He goes into hiding in the house of a crazy cat lady, where he meets an aspiring therapy dog. His past catches up with him when he crosses paths with Goldilocks and the Three Bears and his old flame Kitty Softpaws. It turns out that a race is on to reach the wishing star, with the aid of an ever-changing magical map, and the leading contender is the completely malevolent grown-up Jack Horner. Of course, the real story is the journey as the cats and the dog team up to overcome the obstacles in their path. But can Puss hold his own when the actual Grim Reaper catches up with him?

Puss In Boots: The Last Wish was a 2022 CGI animated film from Dreamworks (see AntZ), developed as the 6th film in the Shrek franchise and a sequel to the 2011 spinoff film Puss In Boots. The production was reportedly 11 years in development. Antonio Banderas returned as Puss, with Selma Hayek Pinault as Kitty, the only other recurring character from the preceding film. Other cast included Harvey Guillen as Perrito, Florence Pugh of Midsommar as Goldilocks, and Brazillian-born actor/ filmmaker Wagner Moura as the Wolf/ Death. The film was released in late 2022, with reportedly pessimistic expectations. It went on to earn over $470 million worldwide, and many favorable reviews from both “mainstream” and animation/ genre critics. In 2023, it lost to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio for best animated film. The film is currently available for streaming on Peacock.

For my experiences, beyond my decade-long chain rant about how a prestigious and competitive award turned into Not Even The Best Disney Movie (see also Muck Over Laika), what made this one stand out is that it was under my radar. To me, the “event” for animation in 2022 was The Bad Guys (which I have been meaning to get to), followed by Pinocchio and perhaps League of Super Pets. At the end of the year, I felt secure that I had seen or at least heard about everything on the field, until I somewhat belatedly saw that the usual channels were blowing up with praise for a Shrek sequel. Inevitably, I worked it in, and was if anything a little underwhelmed. What struck me, before and after watching it, was that these were not just praises for the animation, but deeply felt emotional responses. I gave it another try with a very close friend who had just lost a family member. That left me convinced that this was, if not the best cartoon of the year, a very effective and resonant one.

Moving forward, what’s really worth saying is that this movie starts doing what Dreamworks already had down with Shrek 1 and 2. (Yes, that sequel was better, too.) That shows especially the music, which I have often ended up regretfully skipping in my more recent reviews. Heitor Pereira, who apparently transitioned from live-action to mid-tier animation scores back in the mid-2000s, takes over for John Powell and Harold Gregson-Williams (see my heroic music countdown), and the resulting feel is in line with my overall impression of the film: Nothing new, but a sincere tribute that can sometimes improve on its source material. The improvement part shows most in the utterly insane cast of supporting characters, which I obviously truncated above. There’s an ample supply of one-liners and gags, especially from Goldilocks, Horner (I know, John Mulaney) and the Wolf. To me, what’s really noteworthy is that the film finally evolves the franchise beyond “meta” humor for its own sake. The throw-away gags and one-note characters have been replaced with contextualized dialogue and fully developed genre satire. The difference shows the most in the quite brief interactions between the villain and the Jimminy Cricket analogue, which skewers any number of tropes without ever depending on the viewer to know a reference on sight.

That really leaves the story, and this is where I find certain issues. For the most part, this stays in established “safe” territory, to a degree that has been overlooked or downplayed by reviewers. As a rule, plot points and morals are routine and telegraphed well in advance. The real “problem” is that the exceptions are more like loose ends. This is a minor issue with the subplot of the Wolf and the almost unavoidable spoilers, which in the proverbial light of day isn’t that big a part of the story. It’s a major issue with the map, which to me never gets developed beyond an exposition generator. The deceptive oversight is that few if any stories using the “treasure map” device try to explain where it came from (not to mention why its creator or any previous owners didn’t go back for the treasure already). What is genuinely missing is some idea of what the “map” is. In many ways, it acts like an extension of the Wishing Star itself, which could have been highly intriguing with or without further development. But the lack of development leaves a further gap in what is a significant theme, that the Star is quite actively discouraging and resisting those who are looking for it. If this feels like a minor gripe about a good film, it is by all means because it is. Still, overanalysis is what I do (see Planet Of Dinosaurs), and I maintain that it is the clearest indicator where films can do better.

Now for the “one scene”, this is a film that could be all honorable mentions, with the nod going to Puss’s first encounter with the Wolf. (Yes, his escape route is exactly what it looks like…) What gets on my good side are the scenes with Goldilocks and her adopted bear family, who I am prepared to defend as the most well-developed and entertaining of the movie’s rogues’ gallery. Out of this wealth of material, the one I came back to is their capture of the technically unnamed Perrito. At this point, the bears and the orphan are bored and arguing whether taking the hostage will get them the map back. That becomes an exchange of insults between Goldilocks and the “Baby” Bear, which the father ursine probably doesn’t help by confirming the one thing his biological offspring takes offense at. By his usual unwarranted optimism, the dog is amused enough to join in. Yet, it becomes clear that he has rightly judged that these rogues are fundamentally different from the antagonists we already know would just kill him. By the time he has gotten through a censored string of insults, the bears seem bemused enough to let him go. He then gives an honest appraisal of the family that even Goldi takes him seriously. As Mother Bear speaks up for him, the bears look away for just a moment. Then we get my absolute favorite line, “No crimebacks!”

In closing, I come back to my venting about the Oscars. After years of short cuts and institutional rot, this was finally a case of a difficult decision. Pinocchio was at least a very well-animated film, and we were at least 10 years overdue for recognition of the stop-motion/ Claymation category. By comparison, the present film was a checklist of the things that make a “losing” film: It was “mainstream”, it was a sequel (the one offense that gets even Disney films mulched), and ultimately, it was popular. It can at least be said that it got recognition, which finally means something again. I, for one, can happily recommend it to anyone who has somehow avoided it. That’s enough to call it a day.

1 comment:

  1. Puss and Softpaws are not the only returning characters. Goldilocks and the Bears were in the first Puss In Boots movie.