Since the last time everyone’s favorite fearless feline Puss in Boots rode his last rodeo in 2011, the animation industry has revolutionized. The trend every studio had with making every animated project as photo-realistic as possible has died down, especially after Sony’s Spider-Verse switched up the game big time. With the new wave of animated features that dares to experiment with different techniques, combining 2D and 3D and playing with frame rates to craft a unique experience, it was only right for Puss in Boots to return riding this wave.
In Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, the careless swashbuckling outlaw Puss (Antonio Banderas) finds himself at the last of his nine lives. After a run-in with a bounty hunter in wolf’s clothing (Wagner Moura), Puss decides to hang up the cape and boots and retire at a cat home. There, he meets a therapy dog named Perrito (Harvey Guillén) and hears of a magical star that can grant anyone one wish. Puss seizes the opportunity to embark on his quest to get his nine lives back. With the help of his ex-partner and outlaw Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault) and Perrito, Puss must outrun various parties including Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears crime family (Olivia Colman, Samson Kayo, Ray Winstone) and Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney) to get to the shooting star first.
Fresh off the heels of his directorial debut feature Croods: A New Age, director Joel Crawford was assigned to tackle Puss’s decade-long revival. He took several crewmates from his previous project to assist in revitalizing Puss in this all-new adventure. Not only does Crawford bring Puss back in a fresh new look externally but delves internally with a dark and mature approach to a story that’s all about enjoying the one life we are given.
AwardsWatch sat down with Crawford about directing Puss’s latest adventure in a new painterly style, Akira as an inspiration, and collaborative labor of love behind the project
Rendy Jones: In the time interval between Croods: A New Age and this project. How did you get attached to the film?
Joel Crawford: We had finished Croods: A New Age and at the time, DreamWorks had been trying to find this right next chapter for Puss in Boots for quite a while. Over ten years they kept bringing in really talented filmmakers and writers that would find these great ingredients, but for different reasons, it never got off the ground. By the time I approached it, I had the opportunity to see what had been done and see some really great ideas to build off of them. And one of those ideas was Puss in Boots is on the last of his nine lives. When I saw that, I felt really excited because it’s not just a great comedic premise, but it’s also such a rich opportunity to tell something meaningful because, underneath that, it’s about having one life. As humans, we all just get one life. That was my pitch to the studio: this is going to be a comedy that’s going to be a big action-adventure, but it’s going to be a rollercoaster that ends with this exhilarating feeling. I’m thankful to be part of the team to bring back Puss in Boots after so many years and to be able to deliver that message.
RJ: How’d you take that big gamble of making a new coat of fur for a character who has been around for twenty years?
JC: It is kind of a gamble when you’re taking something that’s so beloved. Not only Puss in Boots but also, it’s connected to the Shrek worlds and there was an established look. I think for us, it’s been so long since the last one. If anything, it was our responsibility to make it relevant now. That’s not just in the story, but also visually. I think audiences have gotten so much more sophisticated since, say, the first Shrek came out over 20 years ago when there was this excitement when CG animation came onto the scene about photo realism. You can see the details, and you can see the freckles on the characters. Over the years, I think audiences are now so open to the fact that of what CG animation can be or what any animation can be, you’re creating new worlds. You’re creating new characters that don’t have to be grounded in reality. And that’s the exciting thing. And so, we got really excited to go, “if this world looked like a fairy tale painting, what would that be?” And we just ran with it. The production designer, Nate Wragg, really started to find the right wedge tests because on one side, we made Puss look so much like a painting that you didn’t feel like was tangible and you could feel his fur and he’s still an adorable cat that you want to feel. And on the other side, you don’t need to see every hair of his fur there’s something beautiful in impressionism, you know. So, we kind of found that right balance and I think it really does transport the audience to a new world and really helps tie into the journey of the movie because you’re just immersing them into this fairy tale.
RJ: This is the first time DreamWorks is playing with frame rates on this new level. How did you experiment with the different motions when you have the action sequences?
JC: It’s interesting because a lot of people point to Spider-Verse, which was very groundbreaking. I remember growing up watching Akira. And there’s so much that we as artists want to do and we’re just super excited that DreamWorks is basically going, “Tell the story visually. How you feel it specifically gets the point across.” Akira just made a big impression on me as a kid, with the effects and things being able to not be super real. I think of anime explosions that feel bigger than real life because you can see these drawings are perfectly graphically designed drawings on screen longer than if it was a simulated CG explosion where it just goes smoothly. So that was our concept. We didn’t want to just switch up the animation style because it’s cool, but more have a story reason behind it. For me, it goes back to that initial nugget of the idea that this story is fantastical. It’s this fairy tale about a cat on his ninth life. Then it’s grounded in reality when you realize that it’s about one life. And so, everything points back to that.
When Puss is fighting the giant at the beginning of the movie, we want it to feel like this fun ride that you’re on. You don’t even feel like he’s going to die. He’s fighting a giant. He’s a tiny cat. But the camera is smoothly tracking behind him like a superhero. The animation style is what we call “stepped” where it’s not traditional CG smooth everything on ones. you’re holding certain frames for like three frames, four frames, so you can see these pushed drawings, and all of a sudden you get the superhero kind of feel to it and it feels fantastical. We wanted to really bring the audience in for this exciting opening that also puts you in Puss’s worldview. He’s like, “I’m immortal, I’m going to live forever!” And then use that to switch up the style in moments of, say, vulnerability, where one is actually aware of the fragility of life. You can go to these more grounded executions of animation which are traditional CG, where everything is smooth and on ones. As an audience, you feel like, “Oh, that’s more grounded in my reality.” We really just wanted to make sure we juxtaposed the absurdity and the reality next to each other so you can jump into the different kinds of points of view.
RJ: What made you want to tackle a darker approach?
JC: I have my default stories I like to tell and the kind of genre they tend to be in. I like action. I like comedy because it’s a disarming way to tell the truth. And just like in Croods: A New Age, I felt like that fit to be just an insane comedy that made you full of joy. In this story, we set out to make a comedy, and it still very much is, but it dips into some surprising, unique tonal areas which get darker at moments. That was out of necessity for the story. When we found out that we had the absurdity, we had fun. As Puss recounts his deaths in the doctor’s office, we got fun music, and it’s a joy to watch his bravado and the arrogance with which he talks about each death. He’s this guy who is so carefree with life. But when we get to the bar scene, co-director Januel Mercado and I, sit in editorial, we’re like, “I’m not feeling the emotion of the moment.” This guy, Puss in Boots, has just kicked off the movie, bragging about how he’s never been touched by a blade and fighting a giant, and then talked about all his lives lost. And he’s still like, “I’m Puss in Boots.” We needed something to really shake him out of his arrogance. That’s where we got to the point where we just kept redrawing on Post-its and scanning them in and in editorial. We found that we needed Puss to be surprised and also the audience to go almost aghast when that moment happens where he gets cut, that you don’t expect this to happen. Then all of a sudden when Puss is cut for the first time and yes, it’s just a drop of blood, but there is this audible gasp in the crowd that you go, “Oh, wow, this story has stakes.” And now you’re buckled in for the roller coaster ride and it goes to some funny, joyful places. But we needed that. I think that was an interesting discovery early on. And actually, it’s funny, I promised the studio a big comedy and that was one of the first scenes we put into production and pitched to them.
RJ: This is comedic to me, you know?
JC: I was like, It’s going to be funny, guys. It’s like, “Yes, Puss gets cut.” But I mean, to their credit, they were very trusting and understood the value of that. And I do think it shows that, like, is this goal of DreamWorks to elevate the storytelling, to go these movies are for everybody. These movies aren’t just for kids. It’s totally appropriate for kids but we want everybody to go on this ride. We don’t want to water things down. We want to bring everybody up to the elevated storytelling. That’s been a fun discovery in this movie that we found we could do.
RJ: What was it like to bring all these new various facets of this already pre-existing fairy tale world but showcase it in a new energy?
JC: Going back to Puss in Boots’s roots, which were in Shrek. Shrek at the time when it came out, was innovative. It was, in my opinion, the first animated movie to be comedically for everybody. It was edgy humor, and it really pushed the boundaries and surprised audiences. We felt like in the same tradition we could go to some new territory. We brought back the edgy humor in Puss in Boots because it’s so organic to his character and to the world. But I think also by bringing in some new tones for us, Grimm fairy tales were an inspiration, which is still in the fairytale world. But it’s new, uncharted territory for the audience and I think it’s exciting in it. If anything, it grounds the world even more and it opens it up and makes it bigger.
RJ: What were some new lessons that you learned on this project, expanding your skill set and techniques as a filmmaker?
JC: As an artist, you’re always learning. Something I valued but even learned more about this project when I came to it was how these movies are really such a team effort. I love approaching it like improv. You start an animated movie with nothing where it’s just ideas and then it’s this “yes and” where it gets built. You have all these specialists who are working on the movie in different departments. If you make sure everybody is in the same scene and has the same idea, the end result can be way more beautiful than you ever pictured because it’s such a collaborative effort. That includes the actors, with the cast. Our whole cast didn’t just show up and read the lines, they were such partners in talking about the psychology of the characters, and in delving deep, even if it was a result of comedy, they were actively engaged and passionate about the story as well. I think the other kind of takeaway from this movie for me is it’s so exciting to be able to visually expand our toolbox, where you try and tell a story, to articulate a message first for a film. When you have more tools to tell that story with, in this case, telling it with this painterly style, with switching up the animation style between traditional CG and kind of a stepped, hand-drawn feel. When you have these extra nuances, it makes your statement as a filmmaker even that much more specific. It’ll be hard for me to go back to just full CG. But if the story’s right, we’ll see where it goes. But I think that it’s just been a wonderful journey in this movie.
RJ: Were the animation team, did they also work remotely? How was the collaborative effort between everybody?
JC: The majority of this was done during the pandemic. And with people working remotely, we had the advantage of coming off of Croods: A New Age, which when the pandemic hit, we were the movie that was coming out. We had to kind of pioneer how we were going to get the movie done. We had like 60% of the movie still finished going through all that and jumping straight into Puss in Boots as we already had our rhythm down as a crew. The producer, Mark Swift, was the same. We worked together on The New Age, and the editor, Jim Ryan, we worked together before. Januel Mercado was the head of Story on Croods: A New Age, and now he’s a co-director of this. We had this team, which we had a shorthand with each other, and that really benefited us to just keep that momentum going on this project. But we also knew what we were missing. At the first opportunity to get back in the room together, we jumped at it. We knew we could find even more and push further if we could be in the room and still feel that connection again. That’s something we valued, and we pushed to bring it to the whole crew as soon as it was safe. This movie was done partly at home, and I think most significantly. So many people were creating this wonderful movie on their computers and seeing it that size. Being able to go to our wrap party and experience the movie with the team of over 400 people that made it and watched them watch their work on a giant screen. They were blown away, especially since this was so innovative and beautiful. That was actually a special ending, a little storybook ending to this.
RJ: They’re talking about improv over here.
JC: But honestly, it was really sad. Some people had been looking at their stuff on a 12-inch screen. And then they’re seeing it in this giant theater. They were like, I had no idea. This is amazing. So, it was special.
RJ: I saw it on my Twitter feed. I think this was from Heidi Jo Gilbert [The Head of story], putting a picture of her credit and was like, “you never really know how great it is until you really see your credit on the big screen and are asked to choose an image of what you want your credit to be.” I’ve never heard that before in animation. I think that’s beautiful.
JC: I’m glad you brought that up because this movie really was special to make, and we were very aware of the feeling that we wanted to get across in the story about this appreciating life. This is about appreciating who you get to share your life with. We were a very tight crew. When we finished the movie, people like Heidi Jo Gilbert, who was the head of story, came in to pick an image from the movie. Also, it’s cool that the movie looks like a fairy tale painting going. You can just take a still and realize how much this movie was like a time capsule for the crew that just seeing an image brings them back. I think not only is this a beautiful movie, but it was also a beautiful experience making the movie with the crew. That’s a unique experience in itself.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is currently in theaters from Dreamworks Animation and Universal Pictures.