Warning: SPOILERS for Puss in Boots: The Last Wish!Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which was arguably one of the biggest movie surprises of 2022, is now available to own on digital platforms. Released eleven years after a first film of mixed reception, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish wowed critics and audiences alike, earned an Academy Award nomination, and revitalized the seemingly-dormant Shrek film franchise all in one fell swoop. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish made a big statement with a bold new art style, a big-name supporting cast, and the return of both Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek Pinault in their starring roles. On top of it all, the film – ostensibly a children’s movie – centered around Puss experiencing a deeply human and real emotion: the fear of death.
Long before Puss in Boots: The Last Wish made a Shrek 5 inevitable, the film’s directors Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado had to juggle all of the above concerns and ensure everything worked together properly. What’s more, while Crawford previously worked on a number of high-profile Dreamworks films including the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is, shockingly, Januel Mercado’s first feature film. In this interview with Screen Rant, Crawford and Mercado made the process of creating Puss in Boots: The Last Wish sound nearly as joyful behind the scenes as the film itself ultimately is.
Crawford and Mercado spoke with Screen Rant about the new and returning cast of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, giving Antonio Banderas a musical number, and more.
Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado on Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
Screen Rant: The message of this movie is so beautiful, but I could see eyebrows being raised when you’re pitching a kid’s movie about the fear of death. Did you have to fight to get that story told?
Joel Crawford: It’s kind of built into the premise of a cat who discovers he’s on the last of his nine lives. We have a great relationship with the heads of the studio, where we had these conversations where it’s like, “We’re going to tell a comedy about mortality,” but our personal goal, taking out the studio out of it, [was that] we want to tell something that releases positivity into the world, [and] that celebrates life. We all had the same objective of, “We’re going to approach this topic, which is kind of new for animation, from a comedic standpoint, but [also] an authentic standpoint.” I think that that’s why it really wasn’t like a battle to get it through.
Januel Mercado: We were always talking about [the fact that] even though these themes are heavy, it plays into the levity of our positive message, and these moments of the film where you do feel the warmth, the fun, and the comedy. Joel and I are always tried to work on telling a story that provides an emotional roller coaster [and] that really pulls the audience in, [so] you can experience the lows and the highs of the character and ultimately come out with a very satisfying uplifting journey.
I really love the animation style in this movie. It’s really cool, and it feels a little edgier than the first one, but it’s also in the same universe. How did you land on the look?
Joel Crawford: It’s been over a decade since the last Puss in Boots, and so we kind of had license. Animation has evolved, the tools have evolved, and in a way, the audiences have become more sophisticated. When CG first came out – you know, the first Shrek – there was this chasing of photo-real because that was interesting and cool, but in a way I feel like the more CG takes over, there’s a want, at least from side of the artists, for the tangible [and] the hand-drawn to get back in there.
We thought it fit so perfectly. [It’s] a story about a character who’s in the Shrek fairytale world, who is kind of in this fairytale point of view of “I’m invincible, I’m going to live forever.” What if we brought the audience into that mindset by putting them into a beautiful fairytale painting, and then using animation techniques, both CG and hand-drawn 2D, that would help them experience the shifts? There [are] action scenes that we’ve turned up; they feel fantastical, they don’t feel grounded in reality, because we’re pushing hand-drawn sensibilities, [and] seeing dramatic poses. Then, [we’re] having more emotionally grounded moments where Puss is experiencing fear and connection. I think they’re tools we use to tell the story more specifically.
Something I was not expecting was for this movie to open with a musical number, but it was incredible. Did it take Antonio Banderas any convincing to launch into song in this movie?
Januel Mercado: He’s passionate about his theater and his playing, so he’s constantly performing and singing, and he’s got an amazing voice and can sing his butt off, right? I think the challenge was working around that, because there’s limits of singing so much, and all the time. We had to carefully sketch where he could deliver this performance and not tap him out.
Joel Crawford: That was a cool thing [about] working with Antonio. From the very beginning when we pitched him the story, he was on board. He was so excited to bring back the joy and the fun of this character, but also bring the world to see another side of Puss in Boots – one we haven’t previously seen, a more vulnerable side. He really embraced the value of starting out fun and big. The whole musical opening is talking about how he’s fearless, and he’s humblebragging, right? And in a song. It’s such a fun way to go, “I get this character and his flaw, but I’m loving it,” and Antonio just has such a charm and an authenticity in his performance.
Januel Mercado: It was so funny because even leading up to the song in the scene where Puss is in the house party, he’s like, “Drink up! Good to see you again!” Antonio was cracking up, because he was like, “This sounds so fake!” Puss is not being genuine, he’s hamming it up.
It was so nice to see a Salma Hayek Pinault comeback, and you brought in these incredible new cast members: John Mulaney, Florence Pugh, Olivia Coleman, and Harvey Guillén. Did you have them in mind from the first few times you read the script?
Joel Crawford: [It was] so great to have Salma Hayek Pinault come back. It was such a gift because she knows Antonio so well. We improvised a lot with the actors to create those moments of spontaneity on the screen, and Salma was such a great partner. She would say, “Oh, what if we say this, because then Antonio can do that.” They would feed off each other even though we’d record them separately, and so that was a gift.
We were writing the script as we were casting as well, so we were discovering characters. Harvey Guillén had this energy; he is Perrito. He is the sweetest, most positive guy, and our pitch to Harvey was like, “We just want you.” That character is just funny because he’s put in a cynical, epic world. He’s so sincere that there’s comedy built in.
Januel Mercado: We started considering [Harvey Guillén] because we saw him in What We Do in the Shadows as Guillermo. Funny enough, a specific bit that we saw was his character Guillermo talking about how he wanted to be a vampire because of Antonio Banderas, the first Latino vampire he’d seen on screen, in Interview with a Vampire. He was like, “I thought, you know, if Antonio could do it, then maybe so can I.” I was like, “Wow. What a trippy, meta thing, if we could get him as someone who looks up to Puss in Boots played by Antonio Banderas. What a cool full-circle connection that would be.”
Joel Crawford: I think, in short, all of our cast were such wonderful partners in honing their character and bringing an authentic experience to them. [In regard to] John Mulaney, we pitched him the character of Jack Horner, and he actually brought this incredibly insightful point of view. This is a character who’s going to wish for all the magic in the world, and he goes, “This is somebody who’s chasing an external want to fill an internal void. That will never be enough.” We really, in conversations with all the actors, kept rewriting after we would talk to them. We were finding this theme that rose to the top, [which was] a theme of appreciating what you have. The awesome thing is [that] we not only got amazing performances from our very talented cast, but they became partners in telling the story.
Januel Mercado: John Mulaney, like Joel was saying, helped us frame the message and the theme and the feeling in a way that was succinct and really impactful. It’s almost that statement of, like, “Once I get this, then I’ll be happy, right?” The hilarious example he gave us was, like, “It’s like ‘I’ve always wanted a brick pizza oven in my backyard. Finally once I get the brick, and I finally build this oven, I’m going to get the dough, and all the pepperoni and I’m going to cook pizzas every day, and I’m going to be happy. That’s going fulfill my life when I get this pizza oven, so I can bake pizzas!'” He’s like, “No, that’s not going to happen. That’s not the answer.” That’s hilarious, and that is very profound and gettable.
This movie works 1000% on its own, but you also are soft-launching Shrek in a way. How early in the process did you know that that was going to be a part of the film?
Joel Crawford: You know what? We didn’t. We’re like Perrito. We are just hopeful and positive. We loved bringing back Puss in Boots. We have such a love for the Shrek world, [and] for these characters, and we were hopeful that the world would embrace this movie so much that there can be more stories, and especially [that] we could go you and tell more stories with Shrek, with Goldie and the Bears, with Perrito, [and] with all these characters that we love. There was no master plan; it was more us just going, “Can we put this in and hope that there’s more?” I think it’s really up to the audiences, like, do they want to see more? I think one of the just amazingly gratifying things is the way the world has received this movie and continues to.
Januel Mercado: From a storyteller’s point of view, Joel and I always want to come off come from a place of honesty and authenticity. When inheriting the story of Puss in Boots, it’s already built in [that] he’s part of the Shrek universe. This is a world that has existed and continues to exist beyond and before us, so it’s like coming into a world that is already alive. That’s why it felt organic with us; this is Shrek’s world, and Shrek is in this world. All creative decisions and questions we had [follow] what’s already inherently built-in.
About Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
Grossing over $555 Million at Worldwide Box Office, and nominated in the Best Animated Feature category for the 2023 Oscars, PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH gives us a new adventure within the Shrek universe. Puss in Boots has burned through eight of his nine lives, though he lost count along the way, and getting those lives back will send him on his most noble pursuit yet.
Next: Why Puss In Boots 2 Is The Best Shrek Film In Almost 20 Years
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is available now on digital platforms.