Interview – ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ director Joel Crawford on creating jokes for big and little kids to enjoy

Over 10 years since he last graced the silver screen, Puss in Boots is back in his latest adventure, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. The character spin-off from the beloved and popular Shrek franchise sees our hero face his own mortality after using eight of his nine lives. However, when word of a magical stone that can grant one wish travels to Puss (Antonio Banderas), he teams up with Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Perro (Harvey Guillen) in a race against time and those other fairy tale creatures who want the stone for themselves.

To celebrate the Australian release of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish in cinemas Boxing Day, the incredible team at Universal Pictures gave me the chance to sit down and chat with the film’s director, Joel Crawford (The Croods: A New Age) about choosing unique animation styles for the action scenes and how to balance comedy for both younger and more adult audiences.

Nick: Joel, it’s so good to talk to you again!

Joel Crawford: Hey, it’s good to see you! How have you been?

Nick: I’m good, man! When we spoke earlier this year for the trailer launch of The Last Wish, you touched on some of the different animation styles you used in the film. After watching the film and seeing how immersive and unique they are, especially in the action scenes, could you talk about – and feel free to get a geeky as possible – the technical aspects behind the animation and what were the inspirations behind those decisions?

Joel Crawford: Oh, absolutely! I think from the very beginning we set out to expand the tone and execution of what we had already seen in something like Shrek. We wanted to put Puss in a mix of this beautifully painted world that our production designer allowed you to be immersed in, like a fairy tale! But then to also take it a step further. How can we have the audience experience different points in Puss’ journey. He starts out thinking he has nine lives, then realises he only has one. And we wanted to show that from a grounded point of view and animation styles that depicted that.

But then, in the moments of action, they’re turned up. They’re fantastical and not grounded in reality. We were like, ‘let’s go all in’! We used something called ‘stepped animation’ which is not as smooth as traditional CG animation, where the computer makes everything smooth. As animators are animating in 24 frames per second, it gives a really smooth movement. And with stepped, you might bring that down to 12 frames per second, and you’re seeing these really paused poses that are held longer, and your eye picks them up better. It’s not grounded, but it’s so cool.

I think it gets compared a lot to anime, and even goes back to traditional hand drawn Disney animation. The roots of it are in hand drawn animation where they were drawing everything one frame at a time. And for this movie, it created a really unique point of view that we could also use as a story telling device. I think we succeeded in that way.

Nick: I think it was absolutely successful! As a movie reviewer, when I’m watching family-orientated films, I kind of gauge how the kids in the audience react to the movie. And one thing I noticed is that while the kids were enjoying this movie, the big kids – myself included – were having just as much fun and laughing along just as much. I’m curious to know whether there’s ever a conscious decision to have jokes in the film that a catered to both a younger and older audience? Or do make sure that a joke works for the moment, no matter who it’s targeted to?

Joel Crawford: That’s a great question! I think my own sensibilities, mixed with what we’re continuing with the Shrek legacy—When Shrek came out, the unique thing about it was that it had jokes that the kids got, and then other jokes that went over their heads and adults were really getting them. It widened out the genre by saying that animated movies don’t just need to be for kids.

So, with that kind of sensibility, I wanted to make something that is entertaining and accessible and relevant, not just for kids, and not just for families, but for everybody. Everybody can come to this movie and hopefully experience and be brought back to that dark, edgy Shrek humour.

I also think we went to some new territory in terms of tone in this movie. We dipped into the more grim fairy tales, which is kind of a new expansion in this medium.

Nick: I’m a 90s kid, so I grew up on Shrek, and I really appreciated having that feeling again in this film! The grim fairy tales you mentioned come in the form of some new fairy tale characters, and the voice cast behind them is incredible! I’m a huge John Mulaney fan, so it was amazing hearing him in this movie! But I feel there is a common misconception that sometimes big actors sign up to do animated movies because it’s an easy payday in the recording booth, but this cast you have really brought it in every scene and make it a wonderful experience. What do you, as a director, say to these actors to sell them on the fact that Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is something unique and different to be a part of?

Joel Crawford: What was really cool with each of the actors was that once I walked them through the plot, each of them became great partners in discovering and articulating the themes of the movie through their characters.

When we pitched the movie to John Mulaney – he is so funny! – he was so quick to tape into the good, the bad and the ugly of his character and why he’s going after this fairy tale prize. He plays Little Jack Horner who is striving to have all the power and magic, the respect and things that will make him happy. So, we really tapped into this idea that this character is going after this external want to fill an internal void. He was never going to be happy, but John found a way to show that through a comedic lens.

That’s what is wonderful with each character! Antonio Banderas was so onboard with playing a character going on a journey to find more and more lives, but who was he going to share them with? Salma Hayek challenges everything in such a positive way by asking what her character is doing and why, really finding the nuance of Kitty Softpaws.

Each of the cast became almost writing partners when we’d work together. We’d improvise a lot! We had amazing casting, and they’re just the right voices to tell this story. It was such a pleasure working with them and a joy discovering their characters.

Nick: That’s incredible, I love hearing collaborative stories like that! Joel, thank you for being so kind and generous with your time today. I hope we can chat again soon! Great to see you again!

Joel Crawford: Thank you so much, man!

Thanks to Universal Pictures, and to Joel, for the chance to chat about Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. Check the film out in cinemas Boxing Day.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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