Twelve years after the “Shrek” spinoff “Puss in Boots,” the sassy Spanish feline voiced by Antonio Banderas has returned for another fairy tale-busting adventure, directed by Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado and written by Paul Fischer (with a story by Tommy Swerdlow and Tom Wheeler). Crawford, Mercado, and Fischer all worked on the DreamWorks Animation favorites “Trolls” and “Croods: A New Age,” and the trio bring a similar “chaotic good” energy to “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” which remixes a new set of familiar nursery rhymes and beloved children’s fables to entertaining ends.
Our titular tabby is living a swashbuckler’s life, swilling leche, singing songs, saving towns, raking in the adoration and accolades, when he dies his eighth death, landing him in his ninth, and final, life. Spooked by a visit from the grim-reaping Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura), Puss decides to hang up his hat and boots and head for retirement in the home of a crazy cat lady, Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
But he can’t escape adventure, and soon Puss is caught up in the quest for a magical wish, which is in the possession of a greedy, pie-producing hoarder of enchanted trinkets, Little Jack Horner (John Mulaney). Remember him, with the Christmas pie and the plum on his thumb? Jack, now quite big, also is pursued by Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her Cockney crime syndicate family of bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, Samson Kayo), who want the wish to make things “just right,” of course.
With his former flame Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and new pup friend Perro (Harvey Guillén) joining in on the race to grab the wish, Puss learns how to cherish his one precious life by making a new friend, or burying the hatchet with Kitty . This is all explicated with fast, funny dialogue and therapy-style lessons delivered by an actual therapy dog. Blissed-out chihuahua Perro is more than happy to stop and smell the roses, and as it turns out, that’s a good way to make it through this maze called life.
The irreverent twist on familiar characters makes “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” entertaining (the fact that it doesn’t overstay its welcome at a brisk 1 hour, 40 minutes helps too). What makes it great is the experimental and creative building of this world. The animation is dizzyingly fast and crisp, but it’s the production design by Nate Wragg and art direction by Joseph Feinsilver that sets this film apart. The backgrounds upon which Puss and pals traipse reference Candyland and Francisco Goya, with a rough-hewn painterly quality that evokes a warm, appealing texture, as if you can see brushstrokes. Other settings are Technicolor hallucinatory fantasy-scapes, while the Big Bad Wolf’s angular lines and grayscale palette set off his gleaming red eyes and call to mind the aesthetic of a noir graphic novel.
Banderas’ purring Puss has long been a favorite “Shrek” character, and he has great chemistry with Hayek’s Kitty, but the rest of the cast brings charismatic vocal performances as well, including Pugh, with her distinctive low tone, and Moura (known for his role on “Narcos”), who makes his wolf singularly scary. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is a gorgeous and dynamic fractured fairy tale.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Rated: PG, for action/violence, rude humor/language, and some scary moments
playing: Starts Dec 21 in general release