Best in Show: spaghetti and speeches

After eleven Puss-less years, the swashbuckling tabby cat voiced by Antonio Banderas returns in an acclaimed new adventure. 
After eleven Puss-less years, the swashbuckling tabby cat voiced by Antonio Banderas returns in an acclaimed new adventure. 

On this week’s Best in Show, we recap the Critics’ Choice Awards and chat with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish director Joel Crawford about Spaghetti Westerns and scaredy cats. 

What’s so interesting about that element of fear and this darker tone is you get a very rewarding rollercoaster ride because of it… It’s laughter, it’s joy, it’s fear, it’s sadness—it’s all these emotions that are this full spectrum of life.

—⁠Joel Crawford

Critics’ Choice Awards

Before we dive into Puss, we have to make a quick stop at the Critics’ Choice Awards, which aired last Sunday on the CW. According to our Hollywood insider Brian Formo, this particular awards show took place earlier in the season than ever before. “This is likely because the organization views the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and their Golden Globes as vulnerable, and they wanted to steal some of that thunder by proving to be a larger influence than the HFPA on next week’s Oscar nominations,” he explains.

Yep, the awards politicking is in full swing, further evidenced by all the consistently incredible acceptance speeches at the Critics’ Choice event. “This time of year is when showing up and giving a great speech really matters,” Brian explains. “It’s right before Academy nominations are due and compelling words can move someone up a ballot. And even after the Oscar nominations land next week, the speeches still matter because they’re a path to convincing voters that they’re a humble and gracious choice. The Academy wants to give it to someone who will appreciate it.

Producer Jonathan Wang accepts the Critics’ Choice Award for best film on behalf of the EEAaO team. 
Producer Jonathan Wang accepts the Critics’ Choice Award for best film on behalf of the EEAaO team. 

“For certain categories that didn’t get airtime at the CCAs, where wins including best adapted screenplay for Women Talking and best comedy for Glass Onion were announced via text on screen, this is a bit of a hindrance for folks like Sarah Polley and Rian Johnson, because they didn’t get to appeal to voters who weren’t in the room.” But victorious directing duo the Daniels did get airtime for winning best director and film for Everything Everywhere All at Once (which also scooped up original screenplay, editing and supporting actor for Ke Huy Quan), and shrewdly pumped Michelle Yeoh up during their acceptance speeches.

Actors Austin Butler and Cate Blanchett backstage at the Critics’ Choice Awards, where Blanchett used her acceptance speech to call for a shake-up of the “horse race”. — Credit… Getty Images for Critics’ Choice
Actors Austin Butler and Cate Blanchett backstage at the Critics’ Choice Awards, where Blanchett used her acceptance speech to call for a shake-up of the “horse race”. Credit… Getty Images for Critics’ Choice

As did Cate Blanchett, implicitly, when she won best actress for her titular role in TÁR: “Thank you, and thank you to all my fellow nominees,” she said. “I would love it if we would just change the whole fucking structure... Why don’t we just say there is a whole raft of female performances that are in concert and dialogue with one another and stop the televised horse race of it all! Because I can tell you every single woman with a television, film, advertising, tampon commercial, whatever—you’re all out there doing amazing work that is inspiring me continually, so thank you. I share this with you all.”

For the rest of the nominees and winners, check out Léo Barbosa’s 28th Critics’ Choice Awards (2022/2023) list.

Puss and the Wolf, who share a similar dynamic as Antonius Block and Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).
Puss and the Wolf, who share a similar dynamic as Antonius Block and Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).

Animation Spotlight — Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

At the time of publication, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish had clawed his way to number 125 in Letterboxd’s Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films of all time. We already knew our fearless hero had made our 2022 Highest Rated Films, muscling out heavy hitters like Top Gun: Maverick and TÁR, but now this little cat is outclassing Casablanca (#143) and Citizen Kane (#249). We spoke with director Joel Crawford about Puss’s unfathomable rise, the cinematic influence of Spaghetti Westerns and that tearjerking panic attack scene.

“When Antonio Banderas voiced Puss in Boots in Shrek 2, he stole the show and was instantly so charming,” Crawford tells us. “There’s a reason there was a spin-off movie of Puss in Boots—because he can hold his own—and it was really important that we didn’t do anything to distract from this huge, ambitious story.”

According to Crawford, the first scene that entered production was the bar fight between Puss and the Wolf (voiced by a bone-chilling Wagner Moura). For context: Puss has been laughing in the face of death for too long, using up eight of his nine lives. When Death in the form of a red-eyed Wolf arrives to challenge him—introduced by a whistled tune ala Once Upon a Time in the West—the ensuing scuffle leaves Puss with a cut: he bleeds. Aside from The Prince of Egypt, Crawford confirms this is the only animated DreamWorks film to feature blood.

He also emphasizes how even though the Wolf is antagonistic, he isn’t technically wrong. “Puss is the one that has the flawed point of view,” the director says. “[The Wolf] has this vendetta, rightfully so, against Puss who doesn’t appreciate life and therefore doesn’t respect death, and it turns into this samurai showdown.”

In addition to Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, the filmmakers also tip their feathered caps to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
In addition to Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, the filmmakers also tip their feathered caps to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films turned out to be a foundational inspiration for the creative team, along with Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns (which were also influenced by Kurosawa). Specifically, Crawford cites The Good, The Bad and the Ugly as a template—Harvey Guillén’s character, a tiny dog nicknamed Perrito who attaches himself to Puss on a big adventure, is given the label ‘The Dog with No Name’ as a nod to ‘The Man with No Name’. And his character’s narrative function was inspired by the goofy rogue Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune) from Seven Samurai. The dynamic between Puss and Perrito was also shaped by another Kurosawa and Mifune collaboration, Red Beard, in which an arrogant young doctor discovers the honor that comes with helping people thanks to the tutelage of his hardened mentor.

Obviously, Grimm fairy tales also served as a major blueprint, particularly in regards to the painterly production design and heavier themes. “What’s so interesting about that element of fear and this darker tone is you get a very rewarding rollercoaster ride because of it,” says Crawford. “It’s laughter, it’s joy, it’s fear, it’s sadness—it’s all these emotions that are this full spectrum of life.”

Fear specifically is depicted with care and authenticity. In a scene that’s resonating with the anxiety-inclined everywhere, Puss experiences a realistic panic attack about the prospect of death. It’s an innovative decision, one that hits even harder when you take his—at this point—nineteen-year character arc into account. “In Shrek 2 when Puss in Boots is introduced, he’s the superhero who doesn’t show this vulnerability," says Crawford. “Especially after conversations with Antonio Banderas, we were really excited to show the world another, more relatable, side.”

Our favorite fearless hero made his grand debut almost twenty years ago in Shrek 2.
Our favorite fearless hero made his grand debut almost twenty years ago in Shrek 2.

Considering the exponential horrors to contend with in the modern age, it makes perfect sense that anxiety and stress levels—particularly in children—are on the rise. “[Kids] can look at the screen and go, ‘I remember when I felt like that, when fear took over and I had this shortness of breath,’” Crawford says, going on to praise comedy as being “a wonderful way to release stress and anxiety,” “a powerful therapeutic tool” and “a disarming way to tell the truth.”

The naturalism of improvisation was tantamount to the vision, as Crawford had taken Groundlings improv comedy classes in an effort to get better at pitching storyboards while he was an animation student at California Institute of the Arts. “There’s something very connected with the process of animation and improv because [at first] there’s no visuals, no information, and line by line it gets built,” he explains. “What’s so wonderful is that by the end of the process, the end result is way more beautiful than you could have ever imagined because there’s a crew of over 400 people that are specialists in their own right, who’ve brought so many ideas that it just evolved and snowballed.”

Crawford also shares how Florence Pugh (voice of Goldilocks) would read exactly what was in the script but make facial cues if she didn’t like a line, which he’d pick up on and suggest exploring something new and more honest. John Mulaney had valuable insights about his character Jack Horner as well: “John is so quick and smart and an amazing writer and actor,” says Crawford. “When we were pitching his character, he tapped into it right away. He was like, ‘This is a character who’s searching for this external happiness to fill this internal void, and he’s never gonna get it.’ And we wrote around that.”

Florence Pugh voices the reimagined Goldilocks: a feisty orphan adopted by the Three Bears Crime Family.
Florence Pugh voices the reimagined Goldilocks: a feisty orphan adopted by the Three Bears Crime Family.

This encouraged collaboration is a through-line of Puss in Boots’ production—Crawford had actually inherited this project from Bob Persichetti, the co-director of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. As such, that landmark film’s fingerprints are all over each cel, most visibly during the dynamic fight scenes. “We didn’t wanna do anything that was just because it was cool,” Crawford laughs. “We wanted to have a story reason behind it. The journey of going to these more grounded, emotional areas inspired us to look at the different styles of animation and what their psychological effects are.

“Traditional CG animation is 24 frames a second. Everything is smooth; it’s like our reality, grounded. Then there’s the traditional way with hand-drawn 2D animation,” he explains. Because drawing by hand was (and is) so laborious, it was more economical for artists to hold each pose for two frames rather than just one.

“Instead of 24 frames a second, you could end up with something that’s 12 frames a second,” he continues. “What happens is you actually see the poses—your eye catches them a little longer than if it was just smooth. It feels fantastical. It’s done in anime a lot, where things will be held for two frames, three frames, four frames, where you get a different feel… So using that as a tool throughout the whole movie, it’s this back and forth of traditional 2D and CG techniques that really form the emotional journey for the audience.”

To hear more of our conversation, listen to the full Best in Show episode.

The EE BAFTA Rising Star nominees from left to right: Aimee Lou Wood, Daryl McCormack, Emma Mackey, Naomi Ackie and Sheila Atim.
The EE BAFTA Rising Star nominees from left to right: Aimee Lou Wood, Daryl McCormack, Emma Mackey, Naomi Ackie and Sheila Atim.

Coming Soon…

Up next: the BAFTA nominations are announced at 12 noon GMT today (January 19), and then Academy Awards nominations on January 24. For our UK members, the EE BAFTA Rising Star Award voting is already open to the public, and you can vote for any of these breakthrough performers: Aimee Lou Wood (Living), Daryl McCormack (Good Luck to You, Leo Grande), Emma Mackey (Emily), Naomi Ackie (I Wanna Dance With Somebody) and Sheila Atim (The Woman King). 

Coming up on the pod, we’ve got chats with TÁR and Women Talking composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, Elvis costume designer Catherine Martin and Blonde hair & makeup artists Jaime Leigh McIntosh and Tina Roesler Kerwin.


New episodes of ‘Best in Show’ drop every Tuesday. ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ is in theaters and on VOD now, courtesy of Universal Pictures. 

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