It’s been over 11 years since the last swashbuckling big-screen adventure of self-proclaimed “macho gacho” Puss in Boots. In cat time, that’s what, 44 years? By the memory metrics of either mammal, it’s understandable to have forgotten this particular character from DreamWorks Animation even existed let alone the specifics of his last exploits, which had something to do with a Zach Galifianakis-voiced Humpty Dumpty and that’s as total as the recall gets without a rewatch.
But Puss in Boots was good at the time. So is its sequel, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, even though it will likely be memory-holed too and push its predecessor even further down below. At least the inability to remember things from your past plays into the plot here, largely rooted in our heroic stabby tabby’s need to reconcile the flippancy of early exploits into a future as the feline he wants to be.
Puss in Boots (again voiced by Antonio Banderas) is about to claim his latest victory, this one over a literal sleeping giant, when he unexpectedly dies in the line of duty. NBD, really. This has happened before. A few times. Puss has nine lives, you know, and he’s used, what, maybe four. Well, actually it’s eight, as a doctor informs him, prompting a montage that includes some questionable decisions with the Pamplona bulls and some YOLN shellfish experimentation. Given his next death will be the last one, this formerly fearless feline feels the weight of mortality — especially concerning given a vulpine form of Death (Wagner Moura) on his tail.
So Puss takes the doctor’s suggestion and retreats to a cat rescue where Puss feels both like Rambo in the monastery and, aided by Dan Navarro’s excellent Spanish-language cover of “The End,” Willard in Apocalypse Now. While there, Puss meets Perrito (Harvey Guillén), a dog masquerading as a cat for the food and thrilled to meet a true hero like Puss. When Perrito tells Puss about the Wishing Star — which can grant a single wish to the person who finds it — Puss figures he can simply wish for another nine lives.
So Puss and Perrito escape, only to find they are hardly the only ones searching for the star. There’s Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, Samson Kayo), reimagined as a crime family. There’s “Big” Jack Horner (John Mulaney), reimagined as a sort of Capone caricature complete with his Bakers’ Dozen of pastry-making lackeys. And there’s Puss’s old flame, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), who throws her lot in with Puss and Perrito.
Both in structure and certain specificity, the story is mostly cribbed from Thor: Ragnarok. And if that sounds like too many characters, you’re right, even as they all enunciate with clear enthusiasm for their roles. At least Mulaney rousts something unique and, unsurprisingly, quite funny as Horner, and there’s no use resisting Guillén’s sweet therapy-dog turn as Perrito. (There’s also a brief aside with a Jiminy Cricket composite that gets his biggest test yet of being a conscience for someone.)
But the animation compensates as it should — painterly, purposefully variated and often quite beautiful, with dimensionality, shimmer and glimmer like a storybook come to life, sometimes with a blockier graphic-novel effect, with bangs, pow, zips, zooms and even the occasional bursts of blood. It gets a great workout with the map to find the Wishing Star, which changes the terrain based on whomever’s holding it from, say, hell-breathing forests to the amusingly titled Field of Quick and Easy Solutions. While it’s a little bit leery to see a Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse approach bleed into “house style” for two studios, it might help The Last Wish’s nine lives linger a little longer before it tumbles into the memory hole.