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Q&A: Puss in Boots: The Last Wish Directors On What That 'Shrek' Tease Means

Puss in Boots: The Lash Wish is now streaming exclusively on Peacock.

By Josh Weiss
A still from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

No one could have predicted the stratospheric success of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (now streaming exclusively on Peacock).

After all, the DreamWorks Animation project was a sequel to a 10-year-old spinoff of the Shrek franchise. Would moviegoers really care about it after all this time? The answer from audiences was a resounding “YES!!!" Armed with a fresh animation style, strong supporting characters, a dynamite voice cast, and surprisingly mature themes about confronting one's mortality, the follow-up for Antonio Banderas’s whiskered, swashbuckling hero defied the odds, both critically and financially.

With a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, it is the best-reviewed entry in the fairy tale-inspired film franchise. By the end of its theatrical run, the film had grossed over $481 million worldwide. Oh, and let’s not forget the Oscar nod for Best Animated Feature. SYFY WIRE caught up with directors Joel Crawford (The Croods: A New Age) and Januel Mercado (Kung Fu Panda 2) to learn how the duo put the pep back in Puss’s step.

For More on Puss in Boots:
Making Sense of the Puss in Boots Cinematic Universe
Harvey Guillén on finding Perrito's unique voice - stream 'Puss in Boots: The Last Wish' on Peacock
'Binging with Babish' goes full Jack Horner with pie inspired by 'Puss in Boots: The Last Wish'

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish Directors Talk Long-Awaited Sequel

Since we don’t have a lot of time, I want to jump right to the end of the movie and talk about that little Shrek teaser as the characters sail to Far Far Away. Where did that idea come from?

MERCADO: [jokingly] They’re actually sailing past it towards the Madagascar island [laughs].

CRAWFORD: Honestly, when we were making the story, we put that in in a hopeful way. We love the Shrek universe [and] we’re so happy to be able to continue Puss in Boots' story. We were really hopeful of, ‘If audiences receive the movie and want more of the Shrek world and demand more, then we can go to Far Far Away. We don’t know any master plan. We were kind of like Perrito, we were like, ‘Let’s be hopeful!’

MERCADO: It was like, ‘Wouldn’t this just be a fun thing?’ Because we’re not ignoring that this an existing world that Puss is a part of. We put it in and people loved it.

Going off that, I really enjoy the fact that we get to see flashes of Gingy, Pinocchio, and even Shrek and Donkey throughout the film. What was the studio’s reaction when you said you wanted to briefly include those characters?

MERCADO: They said, ‘Absolutely not! No one wants to see them!’ No, the studio was so supportive of the story we were telling and they were happy to put as many or as little Shrek references to support the story. For us, it was such a balance because it’s so nostalgic to see those characters we love. But there’s a big story to tell in this with Puss in Boots and we really wanted to make sure we didn’t put so much that it distracted from his story.

And we were also introducing so many new, wonderful characters like Perrito [Harvey Guillén], Goldilocks [Florence Pugh], the Three Bears [Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, and Samson Kayo], Jack Horner [John Mulaney], and the Wolf [Wagner Moura]. We had this rich story to tell, so it was really just a balance of nodding to the past, but expanding the experience of the audiences.

A still from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

You mentioned the voice cast just now. This film has one of the best ensembles a film production could hope for. Are there any fun, behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the recording process that stick out in your minds?

CRAWFORD: We both love to work in a way that’s improvisational. We have the script and we will definitely get what’s on the page, but with all of the actors, we really value the point-of-view they’re bringing [to the project]. It was such a wonderful experience with everybody. Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek…we benefited because they know each other so well.

The first time we were going to record with Salma — because we record separately and we’re trying to create these moments that feel integrated — we were gonna play a line that Antonio had read. And Salma’s like, ‘Pffft! I know Antonio!’ She did this impression of him that was amazing and we were like, ‘Okay.’ So she would improvise things, setting up Antonio for when he would come into record. It was a fun collaboration. Everybody was so fun like John Mulaney [who is] a brilliant mind. He’s so funny. The biggest challenge was that this movie wasn’t three or four hours long. There’s so much funny content we had to leave on the editing floor.

MERCADO: Yeah, it quickly became the 'Jack Horner Show' because he was so funny and we couldn’t let go of all his improvised lines. We had to keep telling ourselves, ‘Guys, it’s Puss in Boots’ movie. We need to cut this stuff down’ [laughs].

A still from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

Speaking of Jack Horner, how did you decide that Ethical Bug would sound like Jimmy Stewart?

CRAWFORD: Every character has a reason to be in the story and it’s an exploration of all these characters who think that they have one thing that will make them happy. [They all think] this magic will fix their lives, and they don’t value what’s right in front of them. We said, ‘All of the characters in this story are animated, but they’re not cartoons. Everybody feels grounded and you get a real experience of appreciating life.’

Jack Horner and Ethical Bug exist in the extreme. They are cartoon-y, they’re the tonal fun of seeing a character who doesn’t value life or people in it. To do that, you need kind of a devil and angel in a scene. We originally wanted to have Perrito be able to spend time with Jack Horner because you could get the contrast of their points-of-view, but we couldn’t give up the screen time he needed to share with Puss and Kitty and Goldi to make those connections. [The idea] just came up of this pure, innocent voice and it did hearken back to Jimmy Stewart, that Frank Capra [wholesomeness] … That happened in the writers’ room. Paul Fisher, our writer, really honed that idea.

MERCADO: Because we wanted Perrito and Jack Horner to share a scene for that dynamic — and it [ended up] not working — it organically led to, ‘How else can we do that with Jack?’ And because it was already built into our depiction of him, ‘Oh, he’s a big, greedy guy who’s just hogging all the magic. What if he had Jiminy Cricket in a jar?’ We started laughing and riffing off that, so it’s cool how you get creative for some problems [which] lead you to another solution.

Looking ahead, you guys are up for Best Animated Feature at this year's Oscars. What were your reactions when you first heard the news of the nomination?

CRAWFORD: We’ve been overwhelmed at each step of the reaction to this movie — just with the audience continuing to support it in theaters, the critics’ response [being] so positive, and the nominations leading up to that. But it’s such a wonderful year in animation. There are so many great animated movies that are pushing the boundaries of what animated could and should do. It wasn’t a sure thing that we’d be nominated, so we were still so shocked and grateful when that announcement came out. It’s just awesome.

MERCADO: This was audiences’ reaction, too, where they were like, ‘Oh, it’s a sequel to a spinoff that came out 10 years ago?’ Because we were surrounded by that while making it, we were not expecting anything. It’s like, ‘Oh, let’s just make a good movie and something we believe in and share with the audiences from the heart.’ But we never thought it would be awards-worthy because we were aware of the hill we were up against. It’s just like, ‘Who’s gonna nominate a spinoff sequel for a franchise that…I’m not sure, are people that into anymore?’ … We’ve been very surprised and happy to hear that was not the case.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) Behind the Scenes

Joel, going back to what you said about grounding these characters in reality, I was curious if you could talk about the mature elements in the film.  I could be wrong, but I can’t remember the last time a DreamWorks Animation movie showed blood and contained this amount of mild language. You're not talking down to the audience or diluting the material with this...

CRAWFORD: We had a big story to tell and we knew we wanted it to be felt by the audience. Even the catalyst for putting blood in the movie, for having edgy comedy — it was all in service of the emotional rollercoaster ride that the audience goes on. We wanted people to come away from this really looking at their own lives and going, ‘I’m gifted with something very special. Who do I share it with? How do I live it?’ In order to do that, you have to have the audience feel real fear. [You need] to go to the dark to appreciate the light.

I think it’s always a tonal balance because this is still a big comedy. It’s an adventure, it’s fun, but we wanted to make sure everything was thematically carrying the audience on this journey. I think what’s been really great is seeing how the world has received a lot of these unexpected thematic elements such as fear and anxiety and admitting vulnerability. Things that I feel like we should discuss with kids, with adults, and animation is such a beautiful way to approach that subject and hopefully, it starts dialogues. I think we were just trying to be sincere from the very beginning.

I know you have both talked about the animation style ad nauseam, but it’s just so eye-popping and different from the first Puss in Boots. What was the creative rationale behind that?

MERCADO: We were inspired by many things, especially anime and how the visual storytelling and cinematography of that is always so plush and visceral. We wanted to continue bringing into Western animated cinema. We’re not, by any means, the first to break this ground, but want to continue taking it to new places.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is streaming exclusively on Peacock.

Originally published Feb 28, 2023.