Coming into a franchise as storied as the Shrek series, director Joel Crawford was thrilled at the opportunity to show a new side of the iconic Puss in Boots. A sequel to the 2011 Puss in Boots film, DreamWorks Animation’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish takes place after Shrek Forever After, when Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is accidentally killed by a bell and discovers he is down to his ninth, and final, life. After a brush with a mysterious wolf who is determined to take his last life, Puss decides to live the rest of his life in hiding. However, he soon learns about a wishing star that could help them get his lives back. Crawford wanted to take the story of Puss in Boots into a darker direction than the other films in the Shrek franchise, using inspiration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
DEADLINE: What was the inspiration for the story of the new Puss in Boots movie?
JOEL CRAWFORD: It definitely took a while to find the right story for the next chapter of Puss in Boots. It’s been over a decade since the previous one, and there’s always been this idea at DreamWorks that Puss is on the last of his nine lives. But figuring out how to articulate that and what story that leads to really evolved. When I came on to it, I got really excited about the nugget of that idea, a cat being on his ninth life and this idea of cats having nine lives, it’s absurd. It feels like a fairy tale premise, but what excited me was that it’s so ridiculous, but then it’s so poignant that Puss has one life and he’s coming to terms with that mortality.
DEADLINE: What was the inspiration for the Wolf that initiates that existential crisis?
CRAWFORD: In conversations between Januel Mercado, the co-director, and myself, we talked about these samurai movies with larger than life characters and these spaghetti westerns. So, one foot of Puss in Boots is dipped in the Shrek fairy tale world, but another one is in the spaghetti western world. So, we needed to have this bounty hunter who could be intimidating enough to basically snap Puss out of his arrogance. And when we were digging deeper on the fairy tale side, we came across Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which used wolves a lot to tell cautionary tales. We felt that character against Puss in Boots is such a rich, scary tone.
One of the discoveries on this movie is that in order to feel the message of this movie, that celebration of life, we need to go to a darker place in order to feel the bright. So, we kept reworking that scene in the bar where Puss is confronted by the bounty hunter, and where he gets cut for the first time, and found that we really have to have not only Puss feel fear for the first time and his hair stand up on his arms, but also the audience feel that as well, connecting that to the stakes of the movie. Because if there’s no stakes, there’s no joy at the end.
DEADLINE: What was it like working on a film that’s the sixth installment in the Shrek series, with these characters who have been around for so long?
CRAWFORD: It’s amazing and daunting at the same time. There’s so much nostalgia and love for these legacy characters from the Shrek world. We wanted to make sure we honored what people loved about the past movies, but also didn’t just stay stagnant or do more of the same, but really took the opportunity. And it’s been so long that like, let’s go somewhere new and across some new territory. We have this painterly style that looks like you’re immersed into a fairy tale painting, which really sets a new mood for the story, but also, with Grimm’s Fairy Tales as a reference, tonally being able to go to some scarier territory with these characters.
When Puss in Boots was introduced in Shrek 2, he stole the show. He was this fearless assassin and he was so funny and so charming and audiences just love that. We definitely brought back everything you love comedically about Puss, but this journey is unique and Antonio’s been really excited about it because it allows us to see another side of Puss in Boots. He’s essentially a superhero who never shows weakness and because he is on his last life, he actually lets down his shield a little bit and you see some vulnerability, a new side to Puss in Boots.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about how the animation changes depending on the type of scene?
CRAWFORD: Margie Cohn, the president of DreamWorks Animation, has really pushed for us to get more specific and use more unique tools to tell the story. We don’t have to search for photorealism with CG anymore, we can use these 2D techniques and make this look like a painting, but all in the quest to tell stories more specifically. With the animation style, we really wanted to draw contrast from the different points of view of Puss when we’re in these big action scenes. We’re introduced to Puss fighting a giant, but everything feels like hyper fantastical and doesn’t feel grounded. The cameras all feel very smooth with tracking and Puss is having fun, and you get this stepped animation which is closer to anime or even back to the traditional hand drawn animation, with really strong poses held for multiple frames, so your eye gets to register them. It’s not as smooth as CG fluid animation, but it has this effect of putting you in this fairy tale of, “I’m gonna live forever.” So, everything is more pushed and superhero-like, and then we go back to traditional CG animation, where everything is on one frame, everything is nice and smooth, so it feels grounded and what we’re used to experiencing. Those moments are saved for moments where Puss is hearing from the doctor that he’s on his last life, or Puss is experiencing this connection with Kitty Softpaws. It’s about having that contrast, so even if the audience doesn’t understand all of the geeky stuff that we’re doing, they feel that the story is taking them through these different emotions using different styles of animation.