By Victoria Staub, Arts and Entertainment Editor
In 2023, it is practically impossible to avoid billion-dollar movie franchises. Marvel comes out with two or three blockbuster hits each year, and this year we will be receiving an 11th “Fast & Furious” film. Some franchises are currently rebooting, such as “Star Wars” and Batman, some of which have been received far better than others. Two recent franchise installations have divided moviegoers and critics alike. These films, “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” are both members of a franchise, yet one story reigns superior.
The revival of the “Avatar” franchise, 13 years after premiering the highest-grossing film of all time, solidified itself as the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time, but it shouldn’t have. While production took a few years, screenwriters had at least eight years to invent a new storyline, and they failed in doing so. One of the greatest issues with “Avatar: The Way of Water” is the lack of novelty to the story. While we are introduced to a new aquatic tribe of Na’vi, the basic storyline of military bad guys destroying nature remains the same. Perhaps the least inspired storytelling from this film is that all of the antagonists are the same, but blue. The villains that were killed in the first movie return as avatars, which is the same reason why many “Star Wars” fans were so disappointed with the return of Emperor Palpatine in the sequels. Nothing is less creative than bringing a character back from the dead, especially when that character is the main antagonist. In addition to the revival of defeated enemies, this film was an unnecessary three hours of what felt like James Cameron’s version of a second “Titanic” movie. Many of the characters, specifically Jake and Neytiri’s children, one of which is oddly played by Sigourney Weaver, were simply annoying, and the returning protagonists were merely secondary characters. Nonetheless, this film contained beautiful cinematography, which is the greatest redeeming quality of this movie. That being said, it was an overall disappointment to the “Avatar” franchise, at least in my opinion. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” on the other hand, did everything right regarding the making of a franchise sequel film.
Not even I expected to defend, or even compare, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” to “Avatar: The Way of Water,” but after seeing both films, which just so happened to premiere around the same time, it became evident that “Puss in Boots” followed the right formula for continuing a franchise. Numerically speaking, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” received a far higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes with a 95 percent compared to a 76 percent for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” demonstrating that critics deemed this film a superior franchise sequel. For clarification, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” acts as a continuation of the 2001 hit “Shrek” which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2002 and famously engaged audiences of all ages. In fact, “Shrek” was so fantastic that the Best Animated Film category was created to give it appropriate accolades. In this franchise continuation, the story clearly follows the character of Puss in Boots, a Zoro-like cat played by Antonio Banderas. Like most movies geared toward children, the plot is simple to follow, but like “Shrek” and the rest of its continuations, the messages are deep and capable of reaching a wide audience. What this movie did right was following a similar plot formula to the first “Shrek” movie, but with an appropriate reintroduction of past characters. Most importantly, there was a new villain with new motives and a new reason for the journey, the general plot of the movie. There were cameos and references made to beloved characters such as Gingy the Gingerbread Man, Donkey, and, of course, Shrek. An argument could be made that Puss in Boots experiences almost the same internal conflict as Shrek in the first film: a man with a mission, working alongside an annoying sidekick they just couldn’t shake, learns to love. The formula is so simple, but it works. The music is entertaining, it features a new animation style, it’s funny, and it contains a unique personification of death. While I acknowledge that this is not a direct sequel to “Shrek,” and not even the first Puss in Boots movie, it is a member of the “Shrek” franchise, just like “Avatar: The Way of Water” is part of the “Avatar” franchise.
What is considered a good movie is truly in the eye of the moviegoer, but a good movie should be something one sees once and wants to see again. Film is an art, but visuals alone do not constitute a good film. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is visually stunning, like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” but “Avatar” was not a franchise installation that can be admired and watched over and over again. Good art should draw you in, and “Avatar” just did not do that.
This article originally appeared on page 14 of the February 2023 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.