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PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH: 3 ½ STARS. “fleet-footed, if slightly predictable plot.”

In 2011, I accused the first movie in the “Puss in Boots” franchise of neutering the once-charming character. We fell in love with the frisky feline, as voiced by Antonio Banderas, in the “Shrek” movies, but his journey from supporting to leading character was far from purrfect. The movies were predictable and worse, had none of the purr-sonality (OK. I’ll stop with the cat puns now) of the “Shrek” movies.

Now, one television series, sequel and video game later, comes “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” a movie, now playing in theatres, that raises the stakes.

The new film opens with the plucky ginger cat (once again voiced by Banderas) in a life-or-death battle against a fur-midable (last one, I promise) opponent. “I am known by many names,” he brags. “Stabby Tabby. El Macho Gato. The Leche Whisperer. I am Puss in Boots!”

He’s been in sticky situations before, but this one is different.

“I have bad news,” says the doctor who attends to his wounds. “You died.”

It looks like the end for Puss in Boots, until he reminds the physician, “Doctor, relax! I have nine lives!”

“And how many times have you died already?”

“Oh,” says Puss, “I’m not really a math guy.”

Turns out, Puss is on his last life and must give up his adventurous ways if he wants to survive.

Rather than become a lap-cat, the swashbuckling Puss, along with love interest Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and chatty therapy dog Perro (Harvey Guillén), sets off to into the Black Forest to find the mystical Last Wish and restore the lives he lost. “I need to get my lives back,” he says. “Without them, I am not the legend.”

But after eight lives lived, Puss has many enemies, all of whom want track him down. “I find the idea of nine lives absurd,” says the Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura), “and you didn’t value any of them.”

Animation is generally thought of as entertainment for kids, but legends like Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi made their careers creating films that addressed darker subject matter. Now, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is no “The Secret of Nimh” or “Fire and Ice,” but it is bleaker and more experimental than anything else in the franchise. Like the recent “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio,” “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” treads into adult territory theme wise, with higher stakes than we’re used to in a film aimed at kids– the Cave of Lost Souls, anyone?—but does so with family audiences in mind.

The character of PiB may be in peril, but the flamboyance that made him such a scene stealer in “Shrek 2” is still on full display. He’s a huge personality in pocket-size, and Banderas brings a perfect combination of roguishness and righteousness to the voice work.

Fun, villainous voice work from Florence Pugh, John Mulaney, and Wagner Moura, as Goldilocks, “Big” Jack Horner and Big Bad Wolf / Death respectively, add some spice and beautiful animation lifts the adventure sequences skyward.

Best of all, the film’s underlying life lesson, that time is precious and we should enjoy it while we can—”When you only have one life,” says Kitty Softpaws, “that’s what makes it special.”—is nicely woven into the film’s fleet-footed, if slightly predictable plot.

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