One of the joys of catching up with the title characters of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is revisiting the perfect synergy of the title character and Antonio Banderas in the lead vocal performance.
When the character popped up in the wildly successful but middle of the road “Shrek 2” (2004), it allowed for some welcome scene stealing that was too much for a flimsy sequel.
Once Banderas was given full reign of the role and provided his own vehicle, the actor and character went to town and doused the audience with catnip. Seriously, if you haven’t seen “Puss in Boots” since its run in 2011, it’s not just better than you remembered but superior to the entire “Shrek” franchise it spun off from.
The first true Puss in Boots sequel is being released belatedly (more on that later) and falls somewhat short from the first vehicle, but it has enough going for it and is an ideal family offering for the holiday season.
Also, for cat lovers, there’s no resisting the sight of the title character sitting alone at a bar, hungrily licking from a tall glass of la leche.
The sequel begins with Banderas’ Puss in Boots tearing into a Goliath-like villain, easily overcoming an opponent with swashbuckling and swoon-worthy precision. Seriously, only Banderas could play this role – Dreamworks had better not think of ever recasting this part.
Puss in Boots is suddenly made aware of his mortality, as he’s down to the last of his nine lives (a montage of how the first eight expired is hilarious). Worse still, Death is upon him and appears to be the one foe he can’t overcome.
A quest for an extension of his mortal expiration date leads Puss in Boots to team up with a former love (voiced by Salma Hayek) and an odd little dog in need of a family unit as much as the title character.
The plot is overly busy, with some of the supporting characters not generating as much narrative spark as one would hope. Case in point: in pursuit of the heroes are Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears (one of which is voiced by Olivia Colman).
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Despite the voice talent involved, the characters don’t elevate the film the way, for example, John Lithgow stole long stretches of the first and best “Shrek” (2001).
A character who, I suspect, will create mild controversy is Jack Horner, voiced by John Mulaney. Why? The character resembles a political cartoon caricature of a certain former U.S. President (You know, the one from “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”).
Considering the long production and delayed release of this film, it’s imaginable that the character might have generated headlines had the film been released (at one point, it was scheduled to open in 2018). Now, it feels like a dated reference (and Mulaney’s vocal performance doesn’t lean into a specific caricature).
If it’s intended as subversive political satire in a children’s film, then the end result is tame, as the character feels more like extra baggage than the film needs.
Far better is the inclusion of Death, who stalks and terrorizes Puss in Boots; the intensity of the character is enough to me suggest parents see this first before taking their youngest to the theater. Unlike the aforementioned Jack Horner, Death has real teeth; the final battle between Puss in Boots and Death is truly thrilling, the film at its creative peak.
Otherwise, there are too many subplots and the added sidekick of Perritio, a needy and sweet therapy dog, is hit and miss; I like how the dog is clearly meant to be a Sancho Panzo to Boot’s Don Quixote but the character isn’t consistently funny.
The animation style often leans towards the anime-enhancement scene in the fantastic “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” though the visual approach is most often reminiscent of a video game.
Scenes of a map layout and views of characters running and hopping away have the look of gameplay. Thankfully, the film is always visually arresting, even when it looks like a video game promo.
The first “Puss in Boots” was funnier and had a stronger focus as it told a grand story. Despite being overly busy and not always a slam dunk, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is better than one would expect from a long-delayed sequel to a franchise that seemed to have peaked a decade ago.
I hope Banderas (the film’s VIP and, as always, so enjoyable to listen to) and his swashbuckling feline make last return. For now, “The Last Wish” is an enjoyable time for family Christmas moviegoing.
Two and a Half Stars