And yet, even as “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” has some fun with the return of Puss’ female counterpart Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) or their new friend, therapy dog Perrito (Harvey Guillen), it is not entirely difficult to wonder if some of the folks behind this film (or perhaps some of the folks behind greenlighting this film) went to see Pixar’s “Coco” a few years ago and wondered if they too could graft a story about death into one of their own upcoming adventures. The focus on death, at least, allows for something more nuanced here than in screenwriters Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow going back to a well that the “Shrek” series has gone too very, very, very often, in which famous fairy-tale characters are twisted around for adult-style humor. Such is the case here with the various antagonists, from Goldilocks (voiced by Florence Pugh), to the Three Bears (Ray Winstone and Olivia Colman as Papa and Mama Bear, and Samson Kayo as Baby Bear, a role that is mercifully not performed by James Corden), to “Big” Jack Horner (John Mulaney).
The performers of those characters, especially Pugh and Mulaney, are seemingly enjoying themselves as they get to play genuinely cartoonish bad guys. (Mulaney, especially, gets to lean hard on playing Jack Horner as big as possible.) If anything, it’s surprising that such classic fairy-tale characters hadn’t gotten to be front-and-center in other “Shrek” films. Yet of the various voice performers, it’s Harvey Guillen who stands out; his exceedingly chipper demeanor in the face of various perils is particularly funny and bracing, and the character as a whole is a sly contrast to how Puss and Kitty approach the world in much darker ways, as in one moment where the trio each touch a paw on a strange map that responds to each of them in kind: for Puss and Kitty, the map reveals many horrific locations they must traverse before arriving at the wishing star, whereas for Perrito, the map reveals nothing but joy and happiness.
The major aspects of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” — the treatise on death and the riff on iconic fables — are reminders that as fresh as the animation seems, and as invested as Banderas continues to be in helping bring Puss in Boots to life, it really ought to be time to move on from the greater world of “Shrek” for DreamWorks Animation. No doubt the lack of family-specific competition this holiday season at the box office is going to enable “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” to perform reasonably well against the presumed behemoth of “Avatar: The Way of Water”, but after two decades, there is almost something metatextual about watching Puss struggle to reclaim a new set of lives and hoping that he gracefully bows out instead.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10