Puss in Boots: Last Wish creators looked at Shrek to reinvent Shrek

“When the first Shrek movie came out, it was quite groundbreaking,” Joel Crawford, co-director of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, told Polygon in a recent interview. “With CG, it was so impressive [with] the detail that you could feel, and audiences were wowed by that chasing of photorealism. So in order to make, 20-something years later, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish feel like a fairy tale for our time, we said, We need to push it.”

And he and co-director Januel Mercado did. Unlike the four Shrek movies and the first Puss in Boots movie, which all take a standard approach to photorealism in lighting and design, The Last Wish is more stylized. The backgrounds are lush. The lighting looks less photographic and more like an impressionist painting. The movements are more exaggerated and eye-catching. It’s a massive departure from what audiences have come to expect from the Shrek franchise, but it was a departure the filmmakers were eager to take.

“It’s been over 10 years since the last Puss in Boots, and over 20 years since the first Shrek came out,” Mercado says. “We’re always talking about just how marvelous animation technology and its visual storytelling has evolved over the years. We felt like there’s been enough time where we could retain the essence of this world and these characters, but we could take full advantage of the new technology and styles [with] which to share these stories. We weren’t about to miss that opportunity.”

Mercado and Crawford were inspired by animated projects like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Arcane, and The Bad Guys, not just for their use of stylized animation, but for their celebration of the mediums that inspired their stories. For Spider-Verse, that was comic books. And for The Last Wish, that meant fairy-tale illustrations.

I’ve been thinking about the shading on Puss’ hat here for weeks now.
Image: DreamWorks Animation

“I remember growing up with children’s books,” recounts Mercado. “Especially fairy-tale books and illustrations, and how vivid these spreads would be, and how simple they are for kids, with just simple texts and storytelling. But I remember as a kid spending hours just looking at the drawings and the paintings, and seeing all the details that are in the environments. […] We wanted to do the same with the film medium for Puss in Boots.”

“Our production designer, Nate Wragg, was really the one who helmed how to express our specific story,” explains Crawford. “Specifically in this fairy-tale style. And so it was a trial-and-error thing where we look at things and go, Oh, that’s too flat and graphic, or That’s too realistic. And so it’s really a process of finding it.”

The animation wasn’t the only element Crawford and Mercado hoped to evolve with The Last Wish. After all, back in 2001, Shrek was groundbreaking not just for the CG, but for the edgy humor and more mature references that inspired a tonal shift in American animation for the next decade or so. To keep Puss in Boots relevant for the 2020s, the filmmakers wanted to revisit that sharp wit, but also expand the themes the movie could deal with and tell a deeper story.

“With the original Shrek movies, there’s a fun play on what we know as fairy tales and Disney princesses that we love. There’s always that subversive take that’s clever and hilarious to experience,” says Mercado. “It’s always just like, Oh man, this is fun. I’ve never thought about it this way. It’s cool to turn things on its head. That was one thing we wanted to go back to and continue as one part of the fold. And the other side of it is also a genuine message, and [an] emotional story to tell.”

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is currently available on demand and on DVD and Blu-ray.

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