Consider this the Spider-Man effect, and an illustration of how our franchises might usefully learn from one another. The generally beloved Shrek series begat 2011's Puss in Boots, a spin-off that made an awful lot of money despite seeming sketchy indeed at 75 minutes; the lack of any immediate follow-up only heightened any suspicion that this lineage had finally run out of puff. (Compare that burnout to the number of Minions movies squeezed out of Despicable Me in the meantime.) Over a decade on, however, Puss finally gets a part deux with The Last Wish, a surprisingly successful revival that owes its existence to two distinct forces: one, the creative and commercial triumph of Sony's 2018 spin-off Into the Spider-Verse, which may have persuaded the suits that franchises benefit when creatives are afforded a freer hand; and two, a post-lockdown need for high-profile content with which to re-establish the DreamWorks brand. The studio's animation division has thus been granted cartoon blanche to do more or less what it likes with its second-string characters, in whatever style they prefer; while the resulting film doesn't go what you'd call full Spider-Verse, it has the advantage of doodling over a script bursting with ten years' worth of ideas, many of those good and fun. Foremost among them: that - much like the franchise itself, one supposes - preening swashbuckler Puss (again voiced by Antonio Banderas) is in the last-chance saloon, having exhausted eight of his allotted nine lives. Pursued by a wolf who claims to be a bounty hunter but may even be Death himself, and then driven from the cat shelter he'd hoped might serve as his retirement home, Puss becomes involved in a madcap chase to catch a fallen star (dare one say a fellow fallen star), competing for ground with tyrannical pie magnate Jack Horner (John Mulaney), former flame Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault), a Cockney Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her illustrious Three Bears (Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone and Samson Kayo: the voice casting alone is enough to make you chuckle). One way of approaching The Last Wish: as the It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of Shrek spin-offs.
Clearly, we're still in sidebar territory, yet if the cultural urgency of the Shrek movies now feels a long way distant, we're heading back in something like the right direction. Abundant effort has been expended on The Last Wish, and I wonder if this was one of those projects that got lucky with lockdown, allowing the writers and animators time to polish their plot and images to an appreciable sheen. Visually, the film travels some distance beyond any of its predecessors. In their central Dark Forest, directors Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado plant this series' own idea of a multiverse, namely multiple paths that unfurl before us in multiple styles, depending on who's in charge of the map; sometimes the screen resembles a 1970s prog album cover, sometimes Mario Kart's Rainbow Road, sometimes an expressionist Sergio Leone landscape. (Contrast this with the Shreks, which had a shed, a blocky castle, and some trees.) As befits the last-life set-up, there's more jeopardy and risk, too. Pity Horner's baker minions, degloved by hungry orchids and speared by stray unicorn horns; the Three Bears find their signature bowls of porridge weaponised against them. Parents be forewarned: it's been rated PG with good reason. (The furry Reaper, voiced by the Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, is a genuinely eerie creation, often recognisable as no more than red eyes in the dark.) Yet even this is a consequence of creatives making conscious choices, rather than simply deferring to the whims of the marketplace or their own processor chips. A sure sign of the new movie's success: Eddie Murphy, who until recently wouldn't have struck you as a man unduly concerned with the fate of the Shrek franchise, has been heard wondering why his Donkey hasn't yet secured his own spin-off. He may have to wait, given that The Last Wish also introduces optimistic canine crossdresser Perrito (What We Do in the Shadows' Harvey Guillén, doing just enough in the booth to stop you and the Disney lawyers thinking of Ellen DeGeneres as Dory), a cockroach with the voice and mannerisms of Jimmy Stewart, and Ray Winstone singing "Who Ate All the Pies?". Banderas, sensing this might be as good a retirement plan as any, sounds like he's enjoying himself immensely. You might likewise.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is now playing in cinemas nationwide.