In 2004, Shrek 2 slammed to Earth, blowing its incredible predecessor out of the water and cementing its place as the standard to beat for every animated flick yet to come.
And this was largely because of one man, one cat, and one hell of a pair of boots...
When archetypal Spanish smoothy Antonio Banderas stepped into the role of Puss In Boots for the first time, it’s hard to imagine he would have thought it would become one of his most iconic. After all, this is a man who breathed exceptional life into a wealth of big characters including El Mariachi (Desperado; Once Upon A Time In Mexico), Ché (Evita), and, of course, a certain other swashbuckling vigilante (The Mask of Zorro).
Yet, as the cherry on top of a franchise cast that included the vocal talents of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, he shone, and it is now for his fine work as the voice of the world’s most fearless feline that many will always remember him.
Since Shrek 2, Banderas has re-prised the part four times – firstly with Shrek 3 and 4, then with the character’s well-deserved solo outing in 2011. And now, the cat who got the cream is back for the long-awaited sequel to this spin-off – Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
With Salma Hayek Pinault returning as love interest Kitty Softpaws, and Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman and Ray Winstone joining the ranks, anticipation for this one has been high. But does it stand as the cat’s pyjamas, or should it be thrown out with the litter tray?
With its UK release date finally here, it’s time to take a look. En Garde!
PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH (PG, 102 mins)
Released: February 3 (UK & Ireland)
Curiosity revives the cat in a rumbustious computer-animated sequel, which compels the eponymous feline from the Shrek franchise to temporarily sheath his sword and meditate on his mortality as he expends all but one of his cherished nine lives.
Screenwriters Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow tread lightly but purposefully through the title character’s existential crisis, furnishing Antonio Banderas with lines of heartfelt dialogue that question the value of a legacy when you leave no room for anyone to share those precious moments.
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish is surprisingly touching and thoughtful, repeatedly underlining the enduring power of biological and chosen families in between frequent chortles like when Salma Hayek Pinault’s jilted love interest issues a swingeing verdict on Puss’s unkempt facial hair: “It’s like a possum crawled on your face and died”.
Director Joel Crawford and co-director Januel Mercado enthusiastically plunder literature and popular culture throughout their gung-ho escapade, striking a pleasing balance between visual spectacle to engage young audiences and wry in-jokery for older children and adults.
They orchestrate visually stylish action sequences including a thrilling battle with a rampaging giant that is breathlessly choreographed to the paw-tapping original song Fearless Hero performed by Banderas and composer Heitor Pereira.
When we encounter sword-wielding outlaw Puss In Boots (voiced by Banderas), he is too busy swashing buckles and proudly polishing his reputation as The Stabby Tabby to notice that he has used up eight of his allocated nine lives.
“My prescription… you need to retire,” advises a kindly doctor (Anthony Mendez), who directs the crestfallen feline to a crowded cat rescue home run by Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her surrogate clan, the Three Bears Crime Family comprising Mama Bear (Olivia Colman), Papa Bear (Ray Winstone) and Baby Bear (Samson Kayo), invade Mama Luna’s refuge and remind Puss of the legend of a single wish waiting to be granted deep within the Dark Forest.
Puss embarks on an epic quest to locate the fabled Wishing Star in the company of alluring pickpocket Kitty Softpaws (Hayek Pinault) and lovable stray dog Perrito (Harvey Guillen).
En route, the furry adventurers face a bounty hunting big bad Wolf (Wagner Moura) and tyrannical pastry chef “Big” Jack Horner (John Mulaney), who intends to possess all magic in the world.
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish is a satisfying slink through fairy tale tropes that purrs most sweetly when characters affirm core values of teamwork, self-sacrifice and resilience.
THE WHALE (15, 117 mins)
Released: February 3 (UK & Ireland)
In Herman Melville’s 19th-century sea-faring adventure Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale, which features heavily in Darren Aronofsky’s claustrophobic character study adapted by Samuel D Hunter from his 2012 off-Broadway stage play, the narrator – a sailor called Ishmael – loses patience with the rambling of a shabbily dressed stranger.
“Look here, friend, if you have anything important to tell us, out with it,” Ishmael implores sternly.
Alas, Hunter and his principal character – a morbidly obese creative writing professor resigned to death from congestive heart failure – somewhat ignore such a plea.
Aronofsky’s film would be hard to stomach without effervescent performances from an ensemble cast led by a revelatory, career-best turn from Brendan Fraser as the wheezing educator. Complemented by Oscar-nominated prosthetics and special make-up, Fraser’s portrayal of grief-fuelled self-destruction and loathing would have both hands firmly on the Academy Award in a subtler and nimbler translation from stage to screen.
With a tear-filled glance, the rejuvenated actor skilfully guides us through inner turmoil and despair towards the soothing light of forgiveness.
Aronofsky’s bold decision to remain almost entirely within the lead character’s home, and to seldom stray outside for fresh air, intensifies feelings of stagnation and suffocation but also underlines the film’s theatrical origins.
Nineteen-year-old door-to-door Christian missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) unwittingly blunders into a medical emergency in a nondescript two-bedroom apartment in northern Idaho.
Gay college lecturer Charlie (Fraser), who weighs about 600 pounds (42-plus stone), is in the throes of cardiac arrest.
Charlie refuses an ambulance – he doesn’t have medical insurance – and summons best friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau) instead.
“Being in debt is better than being dead,” she angrily quips, recording his dangerously high blood pressure.
Over the course of a week, Thomas witnesses Charlie awkwardly rebuilding burnt bridges to his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) and verbally sparring with Liz, who vociferously disapproves of his tactics.
“You haven’t seen her since she was eight years old and you want to reconnect with her by doing her homework?” despairs the nurse.
As Charlie’s condition worsens, Ellie exploits the situation and her acid-tongued mother (Samantha Morton) pays an unexpected visit to the man who wrecked their marriage by having an affair with a male student.
The Whale takes a sledgehammer approach to delivering emotional blows, exemplified by stomach-churning scenes of Fraser gorging on pizza, candy bars and buckets of fried chicken to hasten Charlie’s choking demise.
His mesmerising, layered performance is matched by Chau, who was lip-smackingly delicious in The Menu last year and shows the same steely edge here with glimmers of heartrending vulnerability.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN (15, 100 mins)
Released: February 3 (UK & Ireland)
A family faces an agonising decision – save each other or the entire human race – in a psychological horror thriller adapted from Paul Tremblay’s award-winning 2018 novel The Cabin At The End Of The World by director M Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman.
Eric (Jonathan Groff), husband Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) head to a remote cabin in the woods for a family vacation.
Tranquillity is shattered by the unwelcome arrival of four strangers, Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint) and Adriane (Abby Quinn), who are armed with crude, homemade weapons.
The interlopers claim they only want to talk to Eric and Andrew but when the couple barricade the cabin to protect their child, Leonard, Sabrina, Redmond and Adriane break in with force.
After a tense stand-off, the four intruders tie the two fathers to chairs and reveal they have been summoned by shared visions of the apocalypse.
SAINT OMER (12A, 122 mins)
Released: February 3 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)
Celebrated documentary filmmaker Alice Diop makes her fiction feature debut with a tense courtroom drama which contemplates the many faces of justice in the modern era.
French-Senegalese mother Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) stands trial for killing her baby daughter by leaving her on the sands of Berck-sur-Mer at the mercy of a rising tide.
Sitting in the courtroom, novelist and professor Rama (Kayije Kagame) – who is pregnant – becomes emotionally invested in the case and fearfully acknowledges parallels between Laurence’s story and her own situation.