Puss in Boots: The Last Wish has taken the world by storm ever since its December holiday release last year. The latest swashbuckling entry in the Shrek franchise, and a standalone sequel to 2011’s Puss in Boots, has won over the hearts of millions at the box office with a final gross surpassing $484 million. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish director Joel Crawford and co-director Januel Mercado expertly craft a unique painterly animation style, mature themes, and loveable characters in a way that’s totally fresh for DreamWorks Animation studios. With a script written by Paul Fisher, Tommy Swerdlow, and Tom Wheeler, this epic journey has swiftly reignited the fervor for not only the titular feline swordsman and the Shrek universe but also for animation to be taken seriously as a medium for storytelling beyond just children.
The DreamWorks Animation sequel brings us up to speed with Antonio Banderas’ ferocious feline outlaw, who lives a carefree life of adventure until he realizes he’s on his ninth and last life. Desperate, Puss must evade death itself, in the form of a bounty hunter akin to the Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura), and spoiled heir Jack Horner (John Mulaney) while attempting to find the mythical wishing star to increase his lifespan. His outlook on the situation begins to change when Puss reunites with ex-flame/former partner and nemesis Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault) and meets a new ally in the cheerful mutt/hopeful therapy dog, Perrito (Harvey Guillén). An unforgettable quest unfolds, featuring the aforementioned voice cast as well as Florence Pugh as Goldilocks and Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, and Samson Kayo as the three bears crime family.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is as rich on its own as it is a part of the wider Shrek universe. From the foundations of its dedicated fanbase made up of casual moviegoers and animation lovers alike, this sequel was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 95th Academy Awards next to A24’s Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Pixar’s Turning Red, and Netflix’sThe Sea Beast and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. Director Joel Crawford and co-director Januel Mercado have a long history in animation. Crawford got his big break as a story artist at DreamWorks and has worked extensively on the Kung Fu Panda and Trolls franchises. The two worked closely together on Crawford’s directorial debut, The Croods: A New Age, wherein Mercado served as Head of Story. After the success of their Puss in Boots film, it’s looking like they’ll be collaborating for years to come.
Following our first exclusive interview with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish director Joel Crawford, we had the chance to join him for another fruitful conversation – this time joined by co-director Januel Mercado. In honor of the home release of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD, the directors dish out highly insightful behind-the-scenes details and easter eggs that fans should be on the hunt for. Additionally, we put those growing rumors of Crawford’s involvement in Kung Fu Panda 4 to rest. Both of our interviews with the Puss in Boots: The Last Wish director(s) are filled with unique tidbits, so enjoy!
Exclusive Interview with directors Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado for Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
First of all, I just want to acknowledge how incredible this film is. I took my little brother to see it a few weeks ago, and I’m far from the only one to have that enthusiasm. Therefore, I want to open this up by asking you both how it’s been to witness this incredible reaction from fans?
Joel Crawford: Honestly, it’s more than we could have ever expected. When we were making the movie, we were just trying to tell the story in the right way. From the very beginning, we wanted it to be more than a sequel. We wanted it to be a story where this absurd premise about a cat on his ninth life feels like a fairy tale that actually says something meaningful to everybody, which is: You have one life, how are you going to live it? Who are you going to live it with? The reception has been overwhelming because it isn’t just families that have been so positively receiving the movie. It’s teenagers, it’s 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds – everyone seems to be connecting to the themes of the movie. And that’s so rewarding.
Januel Mercado: Going off Joel’s point about connection, and this might just be my point of view, but as artists and storytellers, I always feel the purpose of telling stories and sharing art is to communicate and relate over emotion, right? And to have someone say, “Oh, I get what you’re saying, I feel that way, too.” That brings humanity closer, you know? So it’s like a cheesy but authentic, heartfelt way of expressing that for audiences to get the message that we’re saying and to respond so positively to the story we’re telling and how we tell it in our voices. That is why we tell stories and why we make and share art. So the reception has been beyond everything I could imagine.
I love that! Joel, you recently curated a double feature in Los Angeles with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. You’ve already talked about the Western influences in this movie, but where does the inspiration from Kurosawa and samurai cinema come in?
Joel Crawford: It’s hard to actually separate the Western and the samurai. Kurosawa inspired so many filmmakers, and Sergio Leone, especially, in the remakes of those stories. I think, for me, Kurosawa is very special because I watched Seven Samurai going in like, “This is entertaining. It’s an epic, about seven brave heroic samurai, it feels like an action movie” and then being surprised by its emotional take on humanity. All of the Kurosawa films, they’re both epic and personal at the same time. For us, that’s what we wanted this movie to feel like (laughs). I know it sounds absurd with a talking cat in boots that we want it to feel like a Kurosawa-esque take on what life can be. [Januel and I] both share in wanting the emotional storytelling of Kurosawa, but also in the visual expression of beauty.
Januel Mercado: The cinematography of both Sergio Leone and Kurosawa is something that will continue to inspire us in our storytelling. Speaking personally, my dad is a big Western fan and loves Clint Eastwood. I’d actually seen and even studied more Sergio Leone in college with Once Upon A Time in the West, the Man with No Name trilogy, and of course, it blew my mind what cinema could achieve. Then coming to Kurosawa a little later in college, as you get deeper into your studies you’re like, “What? This is what inspired Sergio Leone?” Again, as artists, we’re always asking who inspired who and how deep and how early does it go? It’s always so inspiring to go, “Wow, that inspired this?” and you go back and find out what inspired who until it’s a series of rabbit holes that span out in every direction of our filmmaking passion.
Since both of you directors are well aware of the huge fandom Puss in Boots: The Last Wish has developed, let’s talk about fans catching onto easter eggs. This is only going to increase now that we’re finally at the film’s home release. Are there any easter eggs that no one’s caught yet and can you point us in the right direction?
Joel Crawford: I will say that we wanted to create a special experience. You know, we love movies because they’re something you can watch but also rewatch as many times as you like. This story is about all of these characters who think they need magic to fix their lives. They’re so focused on the future of “then I’ll be happy if I can get this.” And they’re not appreciating what’s right in front of them. We thought, wouldn’t it be cool to place things right in front of the audience, and right in front of the characters, throughout the movie that are telling them that they already have it?
So we talk about easter eggs sometimes being just for fun, but in [Puss in Boots: The Last Wish] these are things that are contributing to the plot. There’s a point when Goldie opens the book… when she’s looking at her old fairy tale book in the cabin. There’s actually a message written on the page to the right that you can decode. That’s one I really like.
Januel Mercado: The fun is you could pause it and look. (To Joel) Can we just tell them how to find the message, but not tell them what the message is?
Joel Crawford: (shakes his head and smirks)
Januel Mercado: Yeah, figure it out (laughs). So there’s a hidden message in the pages – pause it and see if you guys could figure it out. It’s probably on the internet already (laugh). I’ll throw in an easier one, too. Throughout the movie, we’re sticking with Goldie and the bears. Goldie’s journey is to find a family, her want is to find a family and the journey is to find out, you know, the real family that’s right in front of her. So we added a visual motif of home and that house to represent the idea of a family. In almost every scene with Goldie and the bears, there’s a composition or an image of a house that seems to kind of blend in with the shot as a part of that search for any kind of home motif.
Joel Crawford: Yes, go search for the “any kind of home” motif!
Januel Mercado: On top of that, because we’re such movie nerds, there are tons of subtle references and call-outs to other movies in general. Everyone always catches this as an example, so it’s not a hot take here, but when Jack Horner falls to his death he does the Terminator 2 thumbs down. There’s a bunch of stuff like that, where you ask, “Is that a reference to that movie?” and it is!
Joel Crawford: And there may also be references to movies with actors we worked with from previous movies…
Januel Mercado: Yeah, there might be a Nicolas Cage reference [from The Croods: A New Age] in there too.
My final question is a bit of a doubleheader. Joel, I’m not sure where these online rumors have come from, but there’s been some talk about you potentially taking on Kung Fu Panda 4. Is there any truth to that? And if not, can you give us a sense of what your next project will be?
Joel Crawford: I don’t know where that rumor came from (laughs). I’m not working on Kung Fu Panda 4. But, for us, there are a lot of stories we want to tell. There’s nothing specific that we are working on at this moment, but there are originals that we want to tell. Also, our hope when making Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was to have audiences fall in love with these characters, and our goal was to continue expanding the Shrek universe. So we would love to keep telling stories with these characters and even new characters within the Shrek universe.
Well, I think you’ll have plenty of people who are going to keep tagging along for this journey.
Joel Crawford: Hey, thank you. This has been really fun.
Januel Mercado: I just wanted to know, how old’s your brother?
He’s actually 17. So the funny thing is neither of us had seen the first film, but the buzz was so loud on this one, and we came out just ecstatic about it. I mean, he saw it again with his girlfriend on a date and she fell in love with it as well.
Januel Mercado: Again, with call-outs and easter eggs, we did design this movie where you didn’t have to watch the first Puss in Boots and could still enjoy it as a standalone story. But, also, we always like to pay homage to and honor the stories that came before us. So, if you did watch that first movie, I will say for people who have seen it, there’s still stuff that you will appreciate that we call back to in The Last Wish. It’s like, “Oh, that’s a slight reference to that.” Or it serves as building on the history of Kitty Softpaws and the characters you start to develop already early on. So it’s almost juicier in that way.