Self-aware and fairly shameless as a performer, Antonio Banderas has become that rarest of movie stars, the guy who finds joy in every role he takes without necessarily finding artistic fulfillment. It’s not so much that he’s happy to get the work, but that work—any work—is what sustains him. Though it took him a while to make the leap from Almodovar’s resident hunk to Hollywood’s most reliable Spanish-speaking actor, he did it by making fun of his outsider status with the most ridiculous role of his career, the voice of Puss in Boots in the animated Shrek series, where his mellifluous Spanish accent perfectly conveyed the character’s absurd self-regard as an outlaw-cum-playboy-cum-superhero. This enthusiasm was rewarded with his own Puss franchise, of which The Last Wish is a sorely overdue sequel.
What made Puss superior to Shrek was its reliance on Banderas’s comic talents, which obviated the need for all those pop culture jokes that made Shrek so tiring. Once again, for Puss it’s all about Puss, and in the brilliant opening musical number, the wily feline is basically on tour selling his Robin Hood shtick. He even highjacks the mansion of the local governor for the “performance” before slaying a monster his shenanigans awakens, all the while singing a stupid song about how great he is. That is until he gets too cocky and is actually killed. No worry, he’s a cat, and cats have nine lives, but as the undertaker informs him, he’s already used up eight, so he’s on his last.
The realization that he’s mortal sobers Puss up, and in the movie’s funniest sequence he gives up the swashbuckling life to become a mere housecat in the home of a sterotypical cat lady, where he has to share the litter box with all the other former strays. He even grows an old man beard out of self-pitying neglect. He makes the acquaintance of an over-eager chihuahua posing as a cat, and when he hears of a magic Wishing Star that might grant him more lives, he and the dog light out to find it and along the way reacquaints with his old flame and rival, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault).
As has become the norm for almost all CG animated films of the last two decades, the pace is brutally fast and the jokes nonstop, and while most of the latter hit their marks, what makes The Last Wish more enjoyable than most of its ilk is the quality of the action sequences, which are presented in a different visual tone, more like anime, in fact. And the action has consequences, as Puss has to compete with Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her family of three criminal-minded, British-accented bears (Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Samson Kayo), not to mention the patently evil “Big” Jack Horner (whose self-esteem issues stem from him being the spawn of a nursery rhyme rather than a fairy tale) and the figure of Death in the form of a Big Bad Wolf. And while the story falls victim to the same misguided urge to utilize the multiverse as every other superhero movie these days, it does so with a certain measure of comic aplomb. With Banderas as game as ever, it can’t help but be entertaining.
Banderas more directly derides his image in the Spanish film Official Competition, which isn’t as funny as Puss but given the aims of its directors, Mariano Cohn and Andres Duprat, that’s because the humor is built into the situation itself. An incredibly rich business mogul (Jose Luis Gomez), upon reaching his 80th birthday, decides he has to leave something meaningful to posterity (which, whatever his business entails, wouldn’t, apparently) and hits on making a “great movie” that will live forever. Knowing nothing about movies, however, he purchases the rights to a door-stopper by a Nobel-prize winner and hires the art house director Lola Cuevas (Penelope Cruz) to adapt it. The story is about a tragic rivalry between two brothers, and Lola decides to goose the subtext by hiring the stuck-up Hollywood star Felix Rivero (Banderas) and the consummate stage thespian Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez) to play the two brothers in the hope that their natural competitiveness and mutual resentment toward each other’s professional approach will imbue the film with tension.
Though Banderas is perfect as an egomaniacal strutter, it’s Cruz who walks away with the movie. Lola is the kind of self-important auteur who really believes you have to suffer for art, just as long as it isn’t the auteur who suffers. She puts her two actors through some pretty humiliating exercises to get the reactions she wants, all the while flaunting her challenging intellect, which is hilariously telegraphed by her fashion sense: a huge, unruly hairstyle and a new designer ensemble every day that is sillier than the previous one. Eventually, however, her artificially rendered “competition” gets away from her and turns deadly, but by that point the viewer has adapted to the film’s black humor rhythms. Though it beats its one good idea to death, the movie says more interesting (i.e., funnier) things about the clash between art and commerce than you can shake Puss’s sword at.
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, in Japanese subtitled and dubbed versions, now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Official Competition, in Spanish, now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish home page in Japanese
Official Competition home page in Japanese
Puss in Boots photo (c) 2022 Dreamworks Animation LLC
Official Competition photo (c) 2021 Mediaproduccion S.L.U., Prom TV S.A.U.