I still remember the first day I tried to write a story. The Ohio air was sweetly hot and it was cool inside but it was the kind of heat where it just made sense to take an ice bath. So, inside the cool bath with the window open and the warm sticky air filling the room, I read a version of the Puss in Boots fable. The idea had occurred to me about how people have to write these stories, so I had a small miniature notebook with me along with the computer-printed version of the story. I had already played around with transcribing and altering some of William Blake’s poetry. In my mind, it wasn’t a creative endeavor. I was writing down mostly word-for-word parts of the story but then I began changing them. I made these changes instinctively knowing that there was another story between the words of the one I was reading. It occurs to me now that this is how anyone starts writing. They read something that encourages them, they begin by formally copying writing that interests them, and more and more, they insert themselves, until their pen files and just create their own vivid images. I remember carrying the small notebook everywhere that summer. A book begins on the first page and ends on the last page, so if I filled the small notebook, it occurred to me that I could write a book. I filled every page and then got another notebook and then another notebook and the rest is history. But it all started with Puss in Boots.
Taking a children’s fable and putting a new spin on it is a timeless practice. That is how so many of our stories have developed. Stories develop out of stories. Shrek begins as an adaptation of so many stories. It gets a sequel. Puss in Boots is a character in the sequel. Puss in Boots gets a spin-off film. That spin-off gets a sequel and that brings us here, to this improbable moment, where we now have the best Shrek movie, a sequel to a spin-off of a sequel.
Because the character is dear to me, the 2011 Puss in Boots is already a recommendable film. Antonio Banderas remains a great voice for an animated hero, all the funnier with all his gravitas and projection that he plays this cat whose legend is larger than life. The simple joke still works here. Puss in Boots is funny. Funnier here than ever but the basic humor of Shrek and the last film are carried through, with a great laugh-per-minute ratio that would make any children’s programming distinctly rewatchable.
The setup is that Puss in Boots has lived out eight of his nine lives. He faces a moral crisis with his best years and adventures behind him and the impending ticking clock of death ahead of him. Death is conveyed by Wagner Moura as The Big Bad Wolf who is after Puss in Boots for his last life. Puss, meanwhile, is after the mythical Last Wish which may restore his life. Joining him on the adventure are Selma Hayek’s Kitty Softpaws and Harvey Guillén’s Perro, a scraggly young pup who just wishes to become a therapy dog. The crew is not alone in seeking the Last Wish, as John Mulaney’s Little Jack Horner — what a good boy he is — and Florence Pugh’s Goldilocks, accompanied by the Three Bears, are also after the wish. This hodgepodge of collected fairytales naturally provides a grab bag of seamless references à la the Shrek movies.
The Dreamworks animation is fantastically stylized here. Each party in the story has its own characteristic animation style and form of expression, each lovingly detailed. Frames are full of vibrant color and movement but also a sense of cohesion in art styles with plentiful sight gags and moments of utterly adorable accentuation. Playing into the tropes of genre movies, it sometimes feels like an operatic Spaghetti Western, or like it’s lifted from the tales of Zoro. Rarely does the film digress into standard children’s movie formulas and the material always feels freshly propulsive, using a standard act structure that’s well thought out, allows plenty of room for character growth, and threads the line between call-backs and meaningful engagement in its original texts, in fairytales and the past adventures of Puss in Boots.
Call it one of the year’s great surprises but The Last Wish delivers. It’s a phenomenally fun children’s film that — don’t mind the cliché — is equally geared to adult tastes. It’s a meaningful comic adventure film with brash dialogue (the therapy dog must often be censored but we’re all a work in progress) and such stylish flair that it feels like a re-engagement with the kind of studio that Dreamworks wants to be, has been before, and can be in the future. It sets the table for a further expansion and reintegration of the Shrek world without relying wholly on the already-played-out notes of that series, perhaps providing the best-yet example of how those stories can adventurously play out in the world of film. I hope there’s another kid out there who is rewriting fairytales and discovering that they can be a writer by iterating on what they have read. It hasn’t happened in the prior Shrek-centric entries but finally, one of these films has engaged this essential memory and reignited some early creative spark and made me grateful for the power of everlasting stories and the way we can change them but more importantly, how they can change us.