Producer: Mark Swift   Director: Joel Crawford   Screenplay: Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow   Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek Pinault, Olivia Colman, Harvey Guillén, Samson Kayo, Anthony Mendez, Wagner Moura, John Mulaney, Florence Pugh, Da’Vine Roy Randolph, Ray Winstone, Conrad Vernon and Cody Cameron   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade: B+

Once you get over the realization that this sequel to the 2011 spin-off from the “Shreck” series is about mortality, you, and your kids, should have a fine time at “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” a darker but surprisingly engaging take on the character’s quest to remake himself under threat of impending demise, powered by a typically high-octane, self-mocking turn by Antonio Banderas and splendid DreamWorks animation.  It also plugs nicely into the fractured fairy-tale approach of the franchise.

The picture starts flamboyantly with a sequence in which Puss (voiced by Banderas), the egomaniacal swashbuckling cat, takes over a corrupt governor’s estate for a people’s fiesta and then defeats a gigantic monster.  Unfortunately, while taking his bows he’s clobbered by a huge bell and dies.

That doesn’t bother Puss overmuch, as he’s died before, and like all felines having nine lives he’s come back to life.  But in discussion with the local doctor (Anthony Mendez), he’s persuaded in a hilarious montage that he’s used up eight of them, and advised to give up his reckless ways and settle down.  Still he’s unconvinced until an encounter with menacing Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura), a sinister blade-slinger who identifies himself as Death, sends him scurrying away in fear.  Puss has become a scaredy-cat. 

Burying his distinctive outfit—including those famous boots—he takes refuge with loopy cat lady Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), among whose brood he finds a disguised mutt later named Perrito (Harvey Guillén), an incessantly upbeat pooch who wants to be a therapy dog and becomes his unwanted pal.  Puss feels humiliated and despondent over his change of fortune, but his hopes rise when he learns that a Wishing Star has landed in the Dark Forest; it will grant its finder his fondest dream—in his case, of course, the restoration of his lives.

So he retrieves his duds and sets off, but not alone.  Perrito tags along unasked, and soon they’re joined by Puss’s erstwhile fiancée Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault), a butt-kicking type whom he left waiting at the altar years before.  Both he and she are after the map to the Wishing Star, which puts them into competition with the slapstick gang of Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears, Mama (Olivia Colman), Papa (Ray Winstone) and Baby (Samson Kayo) on the one hand, and the evil “Big” Jack Horner (John Mulaney) on the other.  All want to be first at the Star, and to snatch the wish that goes along with it. 

As you might expect, the complications of the chase are many—there are kidnappings, rescues, and confrontations galore, most smartly paced (by director Joel Crawford and editor James Ryan) and wittily written (by Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow). Along the way, of course, Puss must learn to conquer his fears and overcome his selfishness, and there are lessons coming to his companions and competitors as well.  Other characters also make appearances, with an especially amusing one by a cricket who, in the voice of Kevin McCann, sounds an awful lot like Jimmy Stewart; he’s Horner’s conscience, but proves even less successful than Jiminy in that department.  (Pinocchio also shows up, briefly.)  The animation is vivid, with a colorful production design by Nate Wragg, and Heitor Pereira’s score aligns genially with the visuals.

Banderas anchors the movie, sending up his own image as both lothario and Zorro with zest while capturing Puss’s emotional doldrums with equal aplomb.  Everyone else enters into the spirit of things as well, making the most of dialogue with a lot more hits than misses.  Be forewarned, though, that some of the scenes with the Wolf might be a mite scary for the youngest viewers, and that the inspiration behind some of the carefully staged fight sequences will escape them; there are references to other movies here that assume you’ll recognize them.  If you do, you’ll smile more broadly.  If not, no matter.

Especially after the disappointment of Disney’s “Strange World,” this marks a refreshing change.  In spite of revolving around death, “Puss” is invigorating, the answer to a holiday wish for an animated film the whole family can enjoy.