Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is playing a huge role in ushering in an exciting new era for DreamWorks Animation. Famously known for launching the Shrek, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, and Kung Fu Panda franchises, the studio giant is now pivoting away from its traditional CG animation of over 20 years for a dazzling mix of 2D and 3D stepped animation. This “fairy tale painting” style was inspired by the eye-opening visuals of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which proved that realistic CG is not the only path to success anymore. The goal is to blend images that look hand-drawn with physical lighting and volume via CG, and anyone who saw this style first used earlier this year in The Bad Guys can attest to how much potential it holds. Well, director Joel Crawford just raised that bar even higher with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish marks the first time legacy DreamWorks characters are revisualized for a sequel. Coming in over a decade after 2011’s Puss in Boots, the story picks up with our titular cat swordsman (reprised by Antonio Banderas) on his ninth and final life. Years of swashbuckling have seen his previous 8 feline lives go to pitiful or tragic waste, and Puss doesn’t realize that it may be too late to repent until death comes knocking at his front door in the form of the Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura). Thus, Puss sets out on an epic journey for the legendary wishing star, hoping to gain his lives back. Along the way, he crosses paths with his lost love Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), a poor helpless Perrito (Harvey Guillén), the nursery rhyme character turned villain Jack Horner (John Mulaney), and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, and Samson Kayo hilariously bring to life Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and root Puss in Boots: The Last Wish back to the greater Shrek universe fans will recognize. This sequel strikes that classic DreamWorks recipe of mature humor and storytelling with a vibrant heart. It’s a return to form for the Shrek franchise that also breaks new ground visually. You’ll go from having a good laugh to being left speechless by the utterly gorgeous animation. Much of this goes back to director Joel Crawford, who’s been a story artist at DreamWorks since the late-2000s. After finally moving up to the director’s chair for The Croods A New Age, Crawford established his voice as one to look out for in the studio. Now with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Crawford is a name to be reckoned with in the animation field altogether.
In sitting down with Joel Crawford for an exclusive interview, we were able to find out exactly how Puss in Boots: The Last Wish achieved all of its visual glory while finding that classic DreamWorks storytelling magic. We dive into how the sequel opens the door for endless possibilities in the Shrek franchise moving forward, and which of the beautiful sequences in the film was the hardest to execute. Furthermore, with Crawford being a rising name in the animation industry, we get his thoughts on the state of animation in the theatrical landscape and why Puss In Boots: The Last Wish deserves to be seen on the big screen. You won’t regret taking the time to reunite with Puss in Boots in the cinema, especially if you want more Shrek films. Take our word for it!
Exclusive interview with director Joel Crawford for Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
Just to start us off, making a sequel more than 10 years after the first must be quite an intimidating task. How would you describe any of the nerves or trepidations you felt as the director of Puss In Boots: The Last Wish?
Joel Crawford: You know, there’s always nerves. With every movie that I’ve directed and every opportunity to kind of helm something, those nerves come in. I actually equate it to improv. I’ve always been a fan of improv, and it’s like that feeling before the scene starts. There’s this nervousness of “where is this going?” But also, there’s beauty in that adrenaline.
Taking on the next Puss in Boots, I was like as long as we have a strong story and I have something personal to say in it, then I know where we’re going. But I don’t know how we’re going to get there! And that’s where the 400 people that work on these movies and elevate everything come in. Also, with the amazing cast that we’ve brought back, it was more of this enthusiasm of like, “Let’s see where we can go with this, really surprise audiences and go further than they ever expected.”
For the longest audiences have been able to distinguish all the major animation studios and their respective house styles apart, like what a Disney movie is supposed to look like versus an Illumination film. But now, DreamWorks is in the middle of reinventing itself with this new mix of 2D and 3D animation. How has it been leading these fresh animation techniques on the big screen?
Joel Crawford: It’s such an exciting time in animation, I think more than just the house styles between the studios. Like when the first Shrek came out, it was an amazing technical achievement that had great storytelling and wowed audiences. But there was this chasing of photorealism in early CG, that everything could look as real as possible. You could see details like the freckles on the character’s arms and it was impressive. And audiences have become more sophisticated ever since.
I think one of the amazing things as artists is that we’re seeing all kinds of different art forms. For example, I’ve always been a fan of Akira, it’s the anime movie that inspired me very early on. Now, having seen all these different styles, as filmmakers, we can pull from different inspirations and put them in. The idea that mainstream animation doesn’t just have to look like CG, that it can really be all kinds of things, as a filmmaker, it feels like you’ve been given more tools. Like you had just a pencil and pen at the beginning and then by adding the ability to make something look painterly, you’ve been given a paintbrush and now you also have a more fine-tuned pencil. You have more tools to tell the story more specifically, so it’s such an exciting time in animation right now.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is only the second DreamWorks film after The Bad Guys to feature this “fairy tale painting” animation style. With it still being so new for the studio, was it the sky’s the limit for your team of animators?
Joel Crawford: What I love about where Margie Cohn, the president of Dreamworks, and Kristin Lowe, the chief creative officer, have gone with this [new style] is they really want the filmmakers to find their own expressions of that story. In doing so, it’s keeping us away from repeating what they did with The Bad Guys. We’re still finding all of these new ways to express our ideas. The great thing about [this animation style] is that it’s unknown, but it’s a super exciting type of unknown.
I have to ask this next question because right now animation is still stigmatized as something just for children despite all the advancements in the medium. Now, some of the best memories I have with classic DreamWorks films like Shrek are of the adults in my family laughing as much as me. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish brought me back to that time because it has that perfect balance of grim storytelling and heart. Can you speak on finding that special middle ground?
Joel Crawford: I’m so glad that stood out to you. That is very much in the tradition of Shrek where it was, in a way, a game-changer at the time. There’s this stigma with animation that it’s for kids, and of course it’s appropriate for kids, but it’s not just for them. Like you’re saying, there’s stuff that goes over kid’s heads that the parents are laughing at. That kind of edgy humor in Shrek really allowed for something that the whole audience could be brought into, and in continuing to expand and surprise audiences with this Puss in Boots film, we had to dip into some new territory.
We found inspiration from Grimm fairy tales this time around, which have some scare to them but the whole film is still a joyful comedic experience. I think [that balance] really does elevate the storytelling experience, and that’s something important to us. Just as like we were saying, using specific tools visually to tell the story. It’s not about going down to the lowest level, like the youngest age group to make sure they get the movie but bringing everyone up to that elevated level of storytelling that I think is so important.
When you watch the movie now, is there a scene or sequence that you’re the proudest of? Maybe one that was incredibly challenging to bring to life and you can joyfully see everyone’s hard work reflected on screen?
Joel Crawford: You know, it’s so hard to pick only one. One of the fun sequences that really came to life, and this is important for us since we’re reintroducing Puss in Boots after so many years, was the opening scene. You see Puss walk through a curtain, he’s like a rock star. He’s singing a song that escalates into him being a hero fighting a giant! Everything about that sequence, there’s a lot of moving pieces that we had to coordinate.
First of all, our composer Heitor Pereira did an amazing job with the music throughout, and so quickly found this catchy song that Puss is singing, “Fearless Hero,” which we wanted the audience to cheer and almost tap their feet going “Yes, Puss is back!” and be brought along for the ride. The sound design in the sequence and the action in the animation, like when Puss is fighting the guards, everything is in sync with the music.
Every hit of the swords, every jump that his boots do, everything is in sync with the music so that there’s this feeling of choreography to it. You’re not worrying if Puss is going to survive as he’s fighting this giant, it feels like it’s all planned and you’re just enjoying the ride until he dies by the bell of course (laughs). So that was one of the achievements where it’s like, you get the audience cheering, they’re back, and they’ve just gone on the first roller coaster of this movie.
The way you just described the opening scene is why I think this film needs to be first seen on the big screen. It’s very interesting because a lot of animation is pivoting away from theatrical, but not Universal and DreamWorks. Even Disney has found more recent success on streaming than in theaters. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on this?
Joel Crawford: That’s a great question. For me, I always make a movie for the big screen. That’s where I’m picturing it. The beauty of filmmaking is that visuals and sound come together to take an audience through different states of emotion. To be able to sit in the same room, especially for comedies, with an audience that laughs and even cries together… that’s exactly the roller coaster ride I’m picturing when we’re making the film. My hope is that this movie, when you see it on the big screen, this fairy tale painting really stands out to you. The sound design of it, you know, all the different experiences where there are scary moments and also amazing fun music, these things are all big and have to be experienced in the theater to be fully appreciated. We design movies for the theater, and my hope is that audiences will come.
So you mentioned earlier how the Shrek/Puss in Boots series is finally dipping into new territory by exploring characters from Grimm fairy tales, and even nursery rhymes I have to add. Can you talk about unlocking some of that untapped potential for a franchise that’s already hit most of the big names?
Joel Crawford: We’ve specifically had so much fun, like you’re saying, tapping into some of the lesser-known nursery rhymes, which was the whole premise for big Jack Horner voiced by John Mulaney. The saying goes, Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, and stuck his thumb in a pie – it’s such a very forgettable nursery rhyme. Building a whole character out of that rhyme was incredibly fun, especially with John Mulaney. We’re finding this character that wants to be taken seriously because he was never a real fairy tale character. So even going to the lesser-known characters give you story fodder.
With Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it was so fun taking on what you think you know of these fairy tale characters and then twisting it and going no, Goldilocks was actually an orphan who came across this Guy Ritchie type of crime family. They end up becoming this fun kind of bumbling smash-and-grab family that you just get so much uniqueness out of! I love mining the fairy tale world for the surprises.
Final question, what potential do you see for another Puss in Boots sequel or the return of Shrek? Antonio Banderas recently teased a new Shrek film, but do you think if these characters were to return, we would see them in this fairy tale painting animation style or even something else perhaps?
Joel Crawford: First, I hope there are more opportunities to tell more stories with Puss in Boots, Kitty Softpaws, Perrito, and even Goldilocks and the Three Bears. When you’re directing these movies, you live with the characters and there are so many times when you go, “I wish we had time for that!” There’s just so much story to tell. In addition, this cast has been amazing to work with, they’ve all been such great partners in finding moments and finding the story with me. I would love to continue telling these stories. And to the second part of the question, I also love that we’ve broken out of things that don’t have to look all the same CG-wise, now we’re letting the story dictate where the style goes. And to me, that’s just so exciting to be in the unknown of it all.