"It's an ambitious story that we set out to tell," Joel Crawford, director of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, tells Total Film. "It's interesting because it's been over a decade since the last Puss in Boots. We knew that we didn't want to just tell another sequel. We wanted this to feel like it brought the nostalgia, the love for these characters, but also went to some new territory, and maybe showed you a new side of the characters as well."
We last saw Antonio Banderas' fearless feline on the big screen in 2011's aptly titled Puss in Boots, but now everyone's favorite gato is back for another epic quest. Puss has frittered away eight of his nine lives, and the only way to regain them and return to his daredevil ways is to embark on a dangerous search to find the fabled Wishing Star. What follows is a fun, colorful adventure story, yes, but also an exploration of something much deeper: facing up to your own mortality.
"This movie is about having one life, and realizing how special that is, and who you can share it with," adds Crawford. "We wanted to make sure this was a roller coaster that went through a range of emotions. We kick it off with big fun and there's joy, and then there's fear, and then there's themes of trust and vulnerability, hope. But really, what I hope people come away from the story with is this feeling of joy and gratitude for their life."
As Banderas explains, the pandemic allowed those themes to take center stage. "The initial script for this version changed enormously," he says. "I think, in a way, because of the events that happened in the world, and the COVID situation, and all the reflection that brought to everybody who was involved in writing the script. So it started getting different. When I received it, it was very pleasant, actually, to see that there, with no restrictions to talk about death, which is a natural thing that happens to all humans."
The actor notes that COVID had a huge impact on children especially, who found themselves isolating at home, unable to go to school or see their friends, and suddenly forced to deal with death. "The movies for kids allow themselves to reflect about this elegantly, carefully. I think it's important and so I felt very proud," he says. "And, it had something to do also with me, because I had a health scare five years ago, and I saw myself reflected in the life of Puss in Boots. [Laughs] I had something in common with the character, finally."
The big bad Wolf
Nowhere is that theme of death more apparent than in the film's terrifying villain. Bringing some genuine peril to the story is the downright spine-chilling Wolf, voiced by Narcos' Wagner Moura. He's no fan of Puss' devil-may-care attitude towards mortality, and, from his first sinister moment on screen, the bounty hunter makes a striking impression as a serious threat to our hero's remaining life.
"I realized early on that Puss is such a big, fun hero, that to really ground the story, we needed Puss to feel fear," explains Crawford. "Going from the idea of Puss being cavalier with his lives and [having] an immortal point of view, like 'I'm going to live forever' – Puss has been knocked down a notch. He brags about never being touched by a blade, he's got this ego to him. As we reworked the scene where Puss feels fear for the first time, we kept saying, 'We've got to be more real with this, we've got to be more genuine.'"
"And that's where we arrived with the Wolf actually being played very straight, very honest," he continues. "It introduces a new tone to the story when that comes up, that you're like, 'Oh, this feels scary. I haven't experienced this in the Shrek or Puss in Boots world up to this point.' And I think that's interesting. The audience is feeling something they didn't expect, just like Puss in Boots is feeling something he'd never felt before: fear."
For Banderas, the Wolf's fear factor is essential. "When I was a kid, I needed a bad guy who was really believable," he reflects. "One of my favorite movies of all time when I was a kid is Peter Pan. And I remember Captain Hook to be a strong character, and so that gave me the pleasure of seeing how Peter Pan can control that and can fight that and win at the end. If the villain is weak, then it wouldn't make sense to me."
The star-studded line-up
Puss doesn't set off on his journey alone. Joining him are Salma Hayek Pinault's capable and fierce Kitty Softpaws, returning from the first film, and Harvey Guillén's Perrito, a heartbreakingly adorable abandoned dog. Hot on their heels and seeking the Wish, too, is Goldilocks and the Three Bears – a charming cockney crime family with Florence Pugh as Goldi, Ray Winstone as Papa Bear, Olivia Colman as Mama Bear, and Samson Kayo as Baby Bear. If that wasn't enough, the truly despicable 'Big' Jack Horner, voiced by John Mulaney, is also on the hunt for the Wish for his own nefarious purposes.
"From the beginning, all of the cast just surpassed my wildest expectations of what they would bring," says Crawford. "I knew they would bring amazing performances, but what I didn't know is that they would be so invested and passionate in conversations about the characters and about the journey of the movie. It's something that rose to the top with our entire cast, was this idea that each of these characters was chasing this one thing that they thought would make them happy. But, at the end of the story, they all have this appreciation, this gratitude, for their own life, and that really came out of conversations with the actors."
And though the characters gel together purr-fectly on screen, behind the scenes, Banderas recorded alone. "The process is long, and you may repeat scenes again and again, with a period of time of one, two months in the middle, because they just got new ideas," he says. "It's very, very creative, and I don't feel that I am just giving my voice to the character, but I am just giving my input as an actor."
A warm welcome
Following the US release of the film, word of mouth has been strong for The Last Wish, and the movie is steaming along at the box office. It's also garnering plenty of awards recognition, including a Best Animated Picture nod at the 2023 Oscars nominations.
"When we're making these movies, you're just focused on telling a story that not only delivers what audiences are expecting, but also is personal," Crawford says of the awards buzz. "And we just set out to make a great story that was accessible to a wide audience, and it's been awesome to have the reception be so warm with audiences, but also with the critics. And these nominations are such a validation for our entire crew of 400 people, who put so much love and passion into every frame of this movie."
"I prefer to be detached from the awards, because it's very intoxicating," says Banderas, pointing out with a laugh that, out of everyone you see at the Oscars, the majority won't be ending the night as winners.
"It's always subjective, for the majority of people to vote for something, but there are minority movies that I love," he continues. "And they probably didn't do great at the box office, and probably they didn't receive so many awards. But I've got those movies in my brain forever." With an enthusiastic double thumbs up, he adds: "But yeah, it's great!"
The Last Wish is also making a splash in theaters, rather than going straight to a streamer. "I've been here at DreamWorks for over 17 years. I started as a storyboard artist, and every movie, I'm seeing it on the big screen," says Crawford. "I think the beauty of films and the idea behind them is they're this experience that takes people from all walks of life, all points of view, and puts them into a character's shoes. And to have a whole audience feeling a range of emotions from joy and laughter, to fear, and cheering, and all these things that you collectively do together. Those are the movies I strive to make. And so I think when we're creating the story we're not focused on, 'How's it going to be released?' It was always for being seen on the big screen."
Plus, the movie is a visual departure from previous films in the franchise, more brightly stylized and almost hand-drawn in quality. "Even the detail in this, the layered storytelling, and also the fairy tale, painterly look, deserves to be seen in the biggest format possible," adds Crawford.
Banderas is just as passionate about the theatrical experience, hosting a special screening for his Company cast mates. "I invited my whole entire cast in the theater, and the technicians, and the musicians that are playing with us every night, and they all brought their kids, and it was so much fun just to watch on a big screen with great sound," he recalls with a huge smile. "And wow, they flipped out. They were just cheering, and it was great."
The actor also believes the theater offers something you just can't replicate at home, too. "When you go to the movies, and you see a film with people that you don't know on the biggest screen in the darkness, there is a ritual that, in the house, is different," he says. "In the house, you can stop the movie, you can go make a sandwich and come back, there's a number of things that you can do, there's a lot of interruptions. But when you see it in the theater, you get to concentrate. They're showing you that thing, and then the size of [the screen] – believe it or not, it's important."
The journey ahead
But is this the last we'll see of Puss in Boots? It seems highly unlikely, with the film keeping the door wide open for more from the universe. "It'd be ridiculous not to do more Shreks," laughs Crawford. "The world loves Shrek and they love Puss in Boots. I hope there's more. Although, for me, I can't speak to knowledge of more than what we set-up in the movie."
Banderas would also gladly step into those famous boots again. "Going back to do these movies is in the hands of the audiences," he says, adding that, if the studio came to him for another go, "I would be more than happy, absolutely." You just can't keep a good cat down.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish comes to cinemas on February 3. For more from our interview with Antonio Banderas, check out the latest episode of Inside Total Film, available on:
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You can also see the actor talking his role in Indiana Jones 5 through the link. For everything else the year has in store, there's our roundup of all of 2023's major movie release dates.