Puss In Boots: The Last Wish Director And Producer On Making A Spaghetti Western In The Shrek Universe [Annecy 2022]

Who would have thought that the studio that not only gave us both the incredible "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Kung Fu Panda" franchises, but also "The Boss Baby" and "Shrek," would have one possibly the most exciting animated movie of the year — and it's a "Shrek" spin-off film!

That's right. Forget your "Is 'Lightyear' a real man or a toy?" debates, and forget about Keanu's Batman, because arguably the most interesting and weird animated project from a mainstream studio this year is "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish." The film, which screened its opening half hour at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, is unlike anything you could have expected from the "Shrek" franchise. It's got an edge to it, it's got anime-inspired action scenes, it experiments with blocking and frame rate, and it plays like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western set in a fairy tale world.

/Film had the chance to talk to "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" director Joel Crawford and producer Mark Swift about reinventing the popular character (whom we first saw trying to assassinate Shrek way back in 2004), playing with the medium of animation, and bringing anime, Sergio Leone, and actual stakes to a mainstream family-friendly animated movie.

'He's kind of a rock star'

There's two fight scenes in the opening act that play with the frame rate of the animation, and feels unlike anything the studio has done before. Hoe did you arrive at this choice?

Joel Crawford: The intro of the movie really kind of reintroduces Puss to the world and reintroduces him where he's at, at the beginning of the movie. He's this larger than life kind of legend. He's mythical, and everything should feel operatic about it. And he's kind of a rock star. And so all those things, we're like, "Well, let's use this animation in stepped [where you animate fewer frames, with the footage feeling like it's sort of skipping a step]," which I'm always been a fan of. I remember when I saw "Akira" for the first time and I was blown away by just the anime style, the effects and everything. And so hyper-stylized. We're like, "Let's make sure this feels like it's big everything." And the camera is all smooth, following Puss everywhere he goes. Everything feels choreographed.

Actually, all the sound effects and all the music is exactly to the beat because everything is according to plan until the bell hits him. That's the only thing out of sync. And really wanted that to be, you're just in, you're along for the ride. And you're like, "Holy crap, this is larger than life." So that was the reasoning behind that. And then when things switch up, when the Wolf attacks [later in the film] ... We would switch between stepped and spline [animating all 24 frames per second], even within the action. But we still use the stepped [to make sure] it felt like this is a big deal, and everything was super pushed.

'He has always thought he was invincible'

There's an edge to this film, a sense of danger, especially in the fight with Wolf. Can you talk about giving the film a darker tone?

Mark Swift: I think the nature of the story is a cat who thinks he has nine lives, finds out he's on his last life. He always thought he was invincible. That's kind of how he defined himself: The invincible hero suddenly discovering fear and [that] making a massive change in him. And in order to do that with Puss, he's so arrogant, we have to do something that really was powerful. And I think for me, the moment is ... he even sings in a song, he's never been touched by a blade. Never been touched. He makes a big deal of it and he's never been cut. And when that blood trickles down, you know everything is different. He knows everything is different and fear exists in him for the first time.

And I think that sequence with the use of color, where it flashes to these red cards, the audience is — not in the old realistic way, because again, it's impressionistic — they're feeling what Puss is feeling. That's our goal. I'm glad that you said that because the movie takes a massive detour from this. That's the old Puss. Oh, the old Puss was the invincible. New Puss, he's one that now has to live with fear, and it drives the story from that point.

'All of a sudden, there's stakes in this movie'

Crawford: And I think that's what we found, is that especially expectations coming into a "Puss and Boots" movie, it's a comedy, it's an adventure and [you] want it to be. It's actually, after this moment in the second two-thirds of the movie, it's funny, it's actually bright and cheerful and there's a lot of fun. But we wanted to make sure we took this ridiculous premise, cats have nine lives. He's flown through eight of them. That's a fairytale. There's no stakes in that until you go, "Oh, he's only got one life left." He just felt how close he was to death. The audience can relate to [that]; we all just have one life. All of a sudden, there's stakes in this movie. And there's a big theme that the journey that this movie takes the audience and takes Puss in Boots on, is discovering what matters in life, who matters, and really an appreciation of life. And so that's why we were like, okay, we're going to keep it funny, but it's okay to make sure we hit that emotional moment.

SwiftAnd it's fun seeing Puss kind of down and out. We've never seen that before. This guy who's effectively given up on life and finding himself falling in with all the other cats. That's a great place to start Puss off.

Crawford: And we found we could be true to Puss' character and have fun watching him be down ... Because he's so melodramatic. Everything. He buries his hat and cape and boots and it looks like a little man in the grave. And then he gives his own eulogy and everything is like a telenovela ... So we found that in terms of, especially comedy in this movie, we didn't have to go to — I'd say the well of where the "Shrek" franchise started off, which is pop culture kind of jokes and kind of modern things. As long as we're true to the character, the character's hilarious. And so it still has the humor throughout the movie, but it's all integrated.

'It's an expansion of the Shrek universe'

How separated did you want this movie to feel from the rest of the 'Shrek' franchise?

Crawford: I think what we've been after is to feel like it's an expansion of the first "Puss in Boots" movie. It's an expansion of the "Shrek" universe. So it's still fairytale world, but it expands into the Grimm fairy tales for certain elements. The humor is still throughout the movie, even when Jack Horner is introduced. John Mulaney is hilarious and I think brings a lot of that vibe of what fans love of the comedy of fairytale characters. But yeah, it's our goal to make sure everything people love about the earlier movies, that it's still there, the characters are there. 

Swift: To be honest, I think it's 20 years since those movies came out. If someone made a movie like "Shrek" today, it would just fall flat because so many other people imitated [it]. That became so common. And so I think for us, yes, people love these characters. They love Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots. He's so wonderful. We can just embrace that and the humor will just come out of it, honestly. And I think it does.

'The movie also shares a spaghetti western world'

There's a big feeling of sort of like a cowboy hanging his hat and sort of a Western feel to the film. Can you tell a little bit about your inspirations for the story and its tone?

Crawford: On one side, it's a fairytale world, but for us the movie also shares a spaghetti western world. And really wanted to pay homage to those that are such larger than life characters. They're so big. And in a way, it seemed like a no-brainer with "Puss in Boots." 

Everything about him, his ego, everything is big. And it's a big show and it's iconic. But then underneath [is] a lot of the Sergio Leone stuff, and I love Akira Kurosawa. And underneath those, they're larger than life characters but there's a humanity that's underneath them, especially in Kurosawa's work. And we wanted to tap into that. You get these big vistas, you get these big moments, but Puss is learning there's a subtlety in life. There's these connections. And it just felt like the right world to kind of put the Puss in Boots franchise in ... Overall, with all the characters we introduce, I mentioned "The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly" as a kind of a template where you're going — oh, all these edgy, hardened people are after this treasure of one last wish.

'It needs to look like you're in a painting'

You talked about the frame rate before, but can you expand on the general look of the film? The sort of blend of 3D with 2D textures.

Crawford: That was definitely a challenge. And we give the credit to the production designer because he was able to kind of tie [them] together. It needs to look like you're in a painting, but at the same time be tangible, that you can touch — Puss is a little cat! — and be able to touch him. And even just finding the effects ... A lot of the effects artists were doing hand-drawn effects for the first time, because they're used to the CG simulations. They were amazing but they didn't fit. And they really reworked, reworked and then found this perfect marriage of going, "Oh, that fire looks amazing."

Swift: The smoke and the milk, it's got a very 2D stepped kind of style.

Crawford: And what's so cool is if you freeze any image in the movie, you could see it. It's like a texture, a surface on there. It looks like a painting. Yeah, it's been an amazing journey with the whole team [finding it through] trial and error.

"Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" arrives in theaters on December 21, 2022.