A moment, if you please, for one last bow and sword-sweeping flourish from Antonio Banderas in the guise of perhaps his greatest screen creation, that swashbuckling catnip-to-the-kitties and the kiddies, Puss-in Boots.
The star of “Puss-in-Boots: The Last Wish” is so glorious in the part that I’d put the Most Special Spaniard right up there with Robin Williams as giving one of the finest vocal characterizations ever to grace an animated film.
“PRAaaaaaay for mercy from… Puss in Boots!”
With every verbal curlicue, every sexy growl, every rrrrrollled R, the man makes this Dreamworks version of the fairy tale figure a work of art and a tutorial in committing to the character with the best instrument in your acting tool kit — your voice. Banderas brings it in every scene, with every line, as if this is the audition that will make him. As if he wasn’t already a legend.
For his third outing as the the cavalier cat burglar, Banderas and a star-studded ensemble including Salma Hayek (Kitty Softpaws), Florence Pugh (Goldilocks), Oscar-winner Olivia Colman (Mama Bear), Ray Winstone (Papa Bear) and John Mulaney (plum on his thumb Jack Horner) fight with or help the cat cope with his fear of mortality, fear of commitment and ego as Puss stares death right in the face…and runs like a scaredy cat.
The film throws our hero into another epic “I LAUGH at death!” throw-down with a giant whose peace he disturbed with his latest self-celebratory fiesta. But his big finish doesn’t lead to another serving of his favorite dish, “gaassssssssssss-pacho.” Puss gets good and conked.
And the town veterinarian has some bad news for him. He’s used up all but one of his “nine lives.” He’s told to retire. But but… “A legend NEVER dies!” Or so he’s always believed.
When a sinister wolf (Wagner Moura, terrific) shows up in a hooded cloak, armed with scythes, Puss finds himself literally fighting for his life for perhaps the first time in his life.
He runs off to live out his days sans hat, sword and boots with a cat lady (Da’Vine Joy Ranolph, a hoot) and her ever-growing brood. The nameless outcast mutt (Harvey Guillén) who disguises himself as a cat just to have a home, only knows him by his Puss’s new name, Pickles. “Puss” must disappear forever, as he grows his beard, eats and eats, learns to use a litterbox and probably wishes the producers had bought the rights to “Memory” for him to sing.
All that changes when Goldilocks and her bear gang track Puss down. They’re looking for this wishing star the Dark Forest, specifically an enchanted map that leads to the star. Puss has barely missed being pressed into that job when he realizes that’s how he could get his nine lives back. But he’ll be racing Goldilocks, and the greedy glutton Jack Horner, no longer “Little Jack Horner,” who covets the wishing star for himself. And even teaming up with his old rival and flame Kitty Softpaws is no guarantee he’ll get his lives back.
Kitty may have her own wish. And the homely mutt Perrito (little dog) is tagging along, dousing the two caper kitties with a heavy dose of uncool.
The script finds fun at the expense of “Pinocchio,” and of an “ethical bug (NOT a cricket)” who is the voice of conscience and sounds a lot like the late folksy film star Jimmy Stewart. There’s also a shot at “The Wizard of Oz.”
But in between the sight gags, one liners, bleeped profanity and “Holy frijoles!” this “Puss” flirts with something deeper, recognizing you have one life to live and a little selflessness and serving and needing others is a great part of that.
The finale is action picture big, and just sweet enough to take away the sting of “generic.”
I’d say the best laughs come from the bears and their bossy blonde adoptee, with Winstone growling and singing, Colman vamping it up and Samson Kayo, as Baby Bear, playing the only one with the brass to stand up to the brassy orphan who doesn’t see the ursine family she’s been blessed with as the key to her personal happiness.
But it is Banderas who brings home the tocino and serves up the whole jamon when the situation demands it. Which in the case of the immodest, flamboyant and recklessly brave Puss-in-Boots, is pretty much every moment he opens his mouth in his delightful, and perhaps final romp as the character.
Rating: PG, frightening bits, a word or two of profanity, some bleeped-out profanity
Cast: The voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Olivia Colman, Florence Pugh, Ray Winstone, Wagner Moura, John Mulaney, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Harvey Guillén
Credits: Directed by Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado, scripted by Paul Fisher. A Dreamworks/Universal release.
Running time: 1:40