Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is the most visually arresting movie that came out in December 2022. Look, I’m as surprised as you are, but Last Wish is absolutely gorgeous to watch — not because its animation is photorealistic, but because it’s decidedly not.
CGI animation has come a long way over the last thirty-plus years. It went from being a niche alternative to hand-drawn animation to the dominant form of animation. Along the way, various groups have pushed the bar of just what can be done: water and rain went from being incredibly difficult to still challenging, but not impossible; photorealism is achievable to the point that you don’t even notice it anymore (I remember being awed at the shifting light from the balloons in Up and the way the stairs creaked under Carl’s feet). High fidelity is common to the point of being droll.
So Last Wish, like Into The Spider-Verse, The Bad Guys, and Arcane eschews making things look super realistic in favor of making things look cool. Spider-Verse plays with its frame rate, animating some things at a normal 24 framers-per-second and other things at 12, making for stylized action scenes. We’ve seen staples of anime like speed lines make their way over to western CG animation, supplementing action scenes in ways that weren’t done nearly as often a decade ago. Arcane, in particular, borrows much from the anime playbook, resulting in some incredibly slick sequences that use every trick available from comics, manga, and anime for some riveting storytelling. After all, you can do anything in animation, so why not shoot for the moon?
True to its fairytale-adjacent origins, The Last Wish forgoes ‘realistic’ animation (insofar as ‘realistic’ as Shrek movies have ever been) in favor of making much of its environments and characters look ripped from children’s books. Fur and plumage aren’t animated down to the individual hairs and feathers; rather they look like painted chunks you’d expect to see in an “Art Of” book. Puss’ sorrowfully-grown beard is funny not just because it’s a beard on a cat, but because it’s animated to look so incongruous with the rest of him. The backgrounds sometimes appear painted too, really making things feel from a land far away. And, taking a page from Spider-Verse, the frame rate of fight scenes is stepped down, creating a staccato rhythm to a fight embellished with speed lines and a background that sometimes fades away.
I feel like we’re at the point where CGI is so common/doable that it feels par for the course. We’re spoilt by Marvel using CGI for its backgrounds and major video games are able to create lifelike characters and environments in realtime. The tech’s reached a point where Really Cool CGI is no longer enough to carry a movie with a paper-thin plot (see: Way of Water), the trick is now how you use it. This year we’ve seen it in The Last Wish and earlier, to a lesser extent, with Turning Red. It feels like now that anything can be done graphically, the real fun begins with seeing how you can play with it.
So yes, give me more stuff like the Puss in Boots movie.
Man, that’s still weird to say.