There are many truths about life. Perhaps the most glaring one is that death is inevitable.
It’s also a truth that tends to stir quietly in the back of our minds as we go about the routines and the whirlwinds of our daily lives. The other day, I snuggled with my orange cat and watched Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. As a long-time fan of the Shrek franchise and the famous feline adventurer, I buckled up for an undoubtedly entertaining ride.
Although the film is filled with other beloved folkloric characters with incredible storylines, my mind chose to fixate on the protagonist of the film, covertly analyzing him and his relationship with the two characters closest to him.
At the beginning of the film, Puss (Antonio Banderas), blinded by the invincibility of possessing nine lives, has no regard for his safety or well-being. As the legends about Puss seeped into the corners of every town, and the sounds of the cheers and songs of the locals prevailed over the dangers and perils he was constantly threatened with during his adventures, Puss went on about his days, absentmindedly getting himself into situations that deducted from his lives. At the same time, he remained unaware of the truth.
Until he came face to face with a bounty hunter. A white wolf in a black hooded cloak (Wagner Moura), who later revealed himself to be the personification of Death. The Wolf addressed Puss’ inadvertency and informed him that this was his last life, which he would claim as a consequence. Petrified by the newly emerged facts, memories from his eight lives flashed before his eyes. Puss ran away for the very first time from a fight and abandoned the mythical and legendary parts that dominated his previous lives.
Now, with Death constantly looming over Puss’ mind and clouding his thoughts, I was transported back in time. I lost my mother in 2018 after a year-long battle with cancer, and for a while after that, every reminder of her absence served as a trigger, and whenever my thoughts spiraled, I always felt that Death was near, despite being only nineteen. And since then, I’ve realized that it’s difficult to fully embrace a mortal life while death invades most of your waking thoughts.
So when Puss finally decided to go on his last adventure, one last attempt to restore his nine lives, I started rooting more for our anti-hero. Puss set out to seek the legend of The Last Wish, a wishing star that is capable of granting any wish. They made their way through the Dark Forest, accompanied by Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), his love interest, and his newfound friend and aspiring therapy dog, Perrito (Harvey Guillén), using a magical map that shifts to cater to whoever holds it.
Their adventure had many memorable moments illuminating certain themes beautifully, but I want to highlight three that resonated most with me.
The Ghosts We Neglect Come to Haunt Us
In my adolescence, years before I got diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder or knew what it meant, I could never put it into words whenever I felt any of the symptoms of anxiety or a panic attack. I’d brush it off as a mishap and redirect the blame on lack of sleep or exhaustion or whatever was going on with my life at that moment. But I always felt strange, like something was haunting me, a ghost maybe.
Since Puss commenced his quest, he’s constantly seen trying to reclaim his glory, or at least pretending to. Casting his anxious feelings aside, Puss was adamant about reaching The Wishing Star. But when a fight later ensues, all of Puss’ bottled-up feelings finally breach the surface.
Death comes too close to Puss again, this time as a mere hallucination, but nevertheless, it’s evident from the get-go which response the formerly nonchalant cat has chosen; flight.
As Puss laid down by the trunk of a tree, his paw placed on his loud, rapidly beating heart, which, as sound designer Jason Jennings pointed out in Variety, is the sound of a real heartbeat, I envisioned myself in Puss’ place, hand on my chest, as the sound of my own heartbeat echoed. I struggled to regulate my breath, and the ghostly feeling returned.
When Perrito shows up, he gently places his head on Puss’ stomach while he pets him; Puss’ panic subdues. He slowly regained his calm. As I wiped my tears, and my heart mimicked Puss’, I recalled some of the times I tried to calm myself through a panic attack and others when friends silently offered their comfort.
The attention that this scene specifically received on various social media platforms was heartwarming to witness. As someone who has long grappled with anxiety and is part of a society that still widely dismisses the existence of mental illness, it felt validating to watch a very real depiction of a panic attack in an animated medium and a film that is part of a successful franchise.
I’m hoping that a moment like this can make people, adults and children alike, who have had similar experiences feel seen, and drive others who haven’t but are curious, to ask questions and hold a space for conversations surrounding mental health.
Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who Am I?
As Puss gets trapped inside The Cave of Lost Souls, his former eight lives greet him as crystal-like holographic mirrors. They all reminisce and sing about ‘the good old days’ and relish in their tales of greatness. Once Puss asks them for the way out to return to his friends, his past lives mock him for becoming too soft and dependent on others. ‘Puss in Boots walks alone,’ they remind him. He contemplates his previous outlook on life. Was he too caught up in his own legend that he forgot to let people in? This is further proved by an earlier scene revealing that he left Kitty at the altar.
Puss’ momentary reflections challenge us to stare at the metaphorical mirror within ourselves. It poses the question: if we deliberately bring the buried truth of our mortality into light, would we be satisfied with how we’ve built our relationship with ourselves and the people closest to us so far? Just like Puss, there comes a time when we need to re-evaluate.
To Live is to Die
Puss fearfully escapes from the cave after his encounter with the Wolf, where he confirms Puss’ suspicions that he is Death. Ignoring his friends’ calls, he runs alone to obtain the Last Wish. Inside the Wishing Star, Kitty confronts Puss, revealing that her only wish was to find someone who wouldn’t betray her trust as he did. Puss finally confesses his entanglement with Death and the actual reason behind his quest and actions.
While Kitty’s disappointment in Puss’ selfishness and cowardice causes her to walk away, Perrito is more supportive. He tells Puss that if Death were after him, he would think that the one life he has experienced with Puss and Kitty is enough. This reminded me of Arwen’s (Liv Tyler) confession to Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, ‘I would rather share one lifetime with you than all the ages of this world alone.’ This is the most pivotal moment in all of Puss’ lives as Death’s ring of fire encapsulates Puss, the memories he created with Kitty and Perrito during this final life played in his mind, giving him the courage he needed to overcome his own anxiety and fear of mortality. Puss chooses to fight Death because even if he loses, he finally thinks this one life is worth fighting for, resulting in Death sparing him with a hanging promise that their paths will cross one day again.
The story ends with Puss’ realization that a mortal life brimming with love and friendship is better than eight ones spent in glorious loneliness.
To many of us who have dealt with death up close or the eternal turmoil of grief and the anxieties that come with it, I think the fearless hero’s story is an important reminder garnished with beautiful imagery that, despite our heightened awareness of how fleeting life is and the certainty of its ending, it is worth living and experiencing to the fullest. To be comfortable in our mortality grants us the power to explore the deepest, most meaningful worlds of our evanescent lives.