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'Puss in Boots: The Last Wish' (2022)/Directed by Joel Crawford/Grade: A+

Not a lot of animated films have stood out to me in the past several years. Sure, there are a small handful, which include Inside Out (2015), Isle of Dogs (2018), Rise of the Guardians (2012), Tangled (2010), and Luca (2021). But when I tell you that the last thing I would have expected going into Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) was that it would find its way on the list as well, believe it.

The followup to 2011's underwhelming Puss in Boots, this film follows the titular, reckless feline (once again voiced by Antonio Banderas) as he finds himself on his last life following a fatal accident where he winds up being crushed by a church bell. While initially advised to retire by a doctor, Puss ignores said warning. That is, until a vicious wolf bounty hunter (Wagner Moura, utterly terrifying) tracks him down, and following a rather close call, Puss figures his adventurous days are behind him.

But it isn't that simple. When Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Samson Kayo) show up to enlist his help searching for the legendary Wishing Star, said to grant one wish to whoever is worthy, Puss determines to find it himself and get his previous eight lives back. Along the way he meets a new canine companion named Perrito (Harvey Guillen), and reunites with his old flame Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault). The three set out to find The Wishing Star whilst evading The Wolf, Goldilocks, The Three Bears, and also Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney).

Boy, that's a lot of characters, and quite a bit of plot going on. One thing I found particularly invigorating about this film when I first saw it, though, was its ability to properly balance all of those characters, and to give them all satisfying arcs. I was super invested in everyone's motivations for finding the star. That owes credit to both the screenplay by Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow, as well as the editing by James Ryan. It couldn't have been easy to make all of these elements fit together, whilst still giving our title character proper attention, but they pulled it off.

Two, those aforementioned characters were super fleshed out in the script, bolstered by the astounding voice work which brought them to life. Antonio Banderas outdoes all his previous efforts as the swashbuckling feline, and quite frankly, delivers his best work in years, giving a performance loaded with attitude, as well as the appropriate amount of gravitas. Puss is grappling with his mortality, and it was an internal journey that both Banderas and the animators conveyed beautifully throughout.

Salma Hayek Pinault was a riot as Kitty Softpaws. Though she initially doesn't want to team up with Puss due to a romantic betrayal years ago, the way these two reconciled their past gave the actress a lot to work with comedically, but also dove right into the mistrusting heart of this broken soul.

If I'm being honest, though, the most emotionally resonant voice acting in the movie for me came from Goldilocks and The Three Bears. Florence Pugh, who has yet to make a false step in my book, gave one of her best performances here. The bond she shared with the furry beasts- who all had wonderfully distinct, likable personalities- came across as deeply heartwarming and believable when I first saw this, an emotion evermore impacted when her motivation for finding the star was finally revealed. I won't spoil it for those who've not seen this, but it was a real gut punch.

John Mulaney was fun to hate as Big Jack Horner, mainly because the character is purely an entitled rich brat who wanted all the power in the world, as opposed to a sympathetic antagonist. Nobody, though, and I cannot stress this enough, stole the show more than Wagner Moura as The Wolf. From the moment he appears onscreen, everything about this character conveys sheer menace. His freakishly devilish and imposing design, his creepy whistle, and especially the threatening voice work, all combined to form the best animated villain I'd ever seen. That wasn't a small feat.

The animation style also deserves special recognition here. Director Joel Crawford notably took much visual inspiration from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), and I could tell. Rather than focusing on line work and photorealistic detail like most animated pictures, the artists went for much more of a storybook style. This allowed the virtual camera to achieve fluid movement and angles that make the action sequences pop off the screen and stick right in my brain long after the credits rolled. I still get chills watching The Wolf and Puss's first fight scene.

Before I give closing thoughts, though, I will make note of the film's most acclaimed moment, wherein Puss has a panic attack triggered by seeing The Wolf. While visually heightened due it being a fantasy movie, just about everything in this scene, from the way Puss's physiological response was animated, to the music, and the sound design, was so accurate to how an event like that feels, in my experience. I have to give most effusive praise to Joel Crawford and his team for their efforts. It was truly cathartic when I first saw it.

If you're a fan of the first two Shrek movies, as I am, but felt the series after that, including Puss in Boots, quickly descended into mediocrity, I would highly recommend not to pass this one up. When I walked into the theater to check it out with a friend, neither of us expected much, and from scene one, we remained consistently on the edge of our seats to see what would happen next. Not only was this the best animated film I saw last year, it was also one of 2022's best movies. It's also since become one of my favorite movies, period. As Puss himself might say, "Holy frijoles".

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