Puss In Boots: The Last Wish Director On Anime Influences And Panic Attacks

Puss In Boots: The Last Wish Director On Anime Influences And Panic Attacks

I’ve never opened an interview with "congratulations on the Oscar nomination" before, but that changed after speaking with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish director Joel Crawford. When the movie was first announced, few thought it would be in such lofty contention. By the time it hit theatres, most film outlets, including TheGamer, had Puss as one of the surefire picks for Best Animated Feature. Crawford takes the congratulations warmly and humbly, instantly throwing the spotlight to his fellow nominees and admitting surprise at the nod. It's a response that highlights the optimism of the movie itself, as well as Crawford's grounded thinking.

Perhaps he's surprised with good reason. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a sequel to a spin-off that is arriving a decade too late. It shouldn't work, and yet it all does. "It could easily be like another cash grab of a sequel, right?" Crawford admits. "We're very honest with ourselves about not only what the story should be, but also who our audience is. Because it's been over a decade, there are people who grew up with it, who are expecting the character they love back on the big screen. But there's also a whole audience of younger viewers who have never maybe known this character, and we're introducing him.

“We did some new things, took some big swings, by changing up the style and leaning into this painterly fairy tale style, where it looks like you're dropped into a storybook. The animation style goes from traditional CG to stepped animation, which you might compare to anime, which feels fantastical and pushed. In addition, we went to some new kind of tonal territory, where it's not only comedy and joy, but there's some scary moments. Ultimately, it's this aspirational, fulfilment of life, but we wanted it to be very much a big roller coaster ride for audiences."

Crawford's mention of anime is telling, and points to a larger trend in Western animation. For generations, Western animators grew up on Western animation, so while each new cycle would expand the medium and add fresh ideas, they were building on the same source. Now, we're seeing senior filmmakers like Crawford who grew up on a much wider variety of inspirations, leading to new interpretations of animation that we see in the likes of Spider-Verse, Midnight Gospel, The Mitchells vs the Machines, The Bad Guys, fellow Oscar nominee Turning Red, and of course, Puss in Boots itself. This not only changes the texture of the movie, but Crawford feels it helps it speak to a wider audience.

"Both in the look, and also in the story material, we wanted to make sure it was elevated," he says. "We weren't talking down to anybody. This movie is for everybody, not just kids. I think it'd be a missed opportunity to not push the animation [or] approach themes that may seem more mature but still appropriate for all audiences. I think the look and the story go hand in hand. I've always loved anime. I remember watching Akira, and that just blew my mind as a kid. So being able to use some of those sensibilities to convey this larger than life action hero is just awesome."

Puss in Boots feels like every frame is curated and busy, not just a transition from one scene to the next but existing as a summation of the movie itself. Crawford worked at DreamWorks as a storyboard artist for a decade before moving up to direct, and this experience helped shape The Last Wish to be so full of animated flavour.

"Being a storyboard artist in animation is a unique kind of job where you're a jack of all trades in a way," Crawford tells me. "You're focused on the story structure of your sequence that you're storyboarding out, you're focused on the performance, the acting of each character to the camera, the cinematography, even the editing [because] when you pitch the scene, you're thinking about the pacing. In a way, you're being trained to look at every aspect of the storytelling as a story artist. That's been such a huge influence. It was so fun also, as an artist, because you are always looking, studying other films for inspiration, depending on what you're working on. So you get this vast array of experience."

One of the mature themes Crawford alluded to has already been heavily discussed online, with the film out in late 2022 in other territories. Namely, the depiction of panic attacks that feels realistic and heartfelt, while maintaining the movie's colourful animation style. I asked Crawford about walking the tightrope in pulling that off authentically.

"I think this whole film, we wanted to go past making it a comedy adventure. It has those elements in it, but essentially, it's a story about a character who thinks he's immortal,” Crawford explains. “Puss in Boots has this shield up of, 'I don't fear anything, I can't show vulnerability'. That moment came from us realising we needed this character to realise if he shows vulnerability, that's true strength. That's what happens when you allow your flaws to be known, you're actually being more human, and you connect.

“Finding that moment was really important to us. The beauty of animation is so many people work on this as it goes down the pipeline, from our writer, to Antonio bringing his own personal experience in, to myself, to the storyboard artists who ordered the scene, the panic attack, had had a personal experience. Everybody is bringing sincerity and honesty. I think that's the reason it feels right. It doesn't feel like us trying to diagnose it or even look at it from a clinical point of view. It's looked at from a human point of view."

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish opens in UK cinemas Feb 3.

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