Puss in Boots Laughs in the Face of Death, by Ethan K. Poole
Updated: Feb 26
This article will contain spoilers for Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, although it is not the type of movie to be ruined by them.
You and everyone you know is eventually going to die.
December 21, 2022, DreamWorks released Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, a part of the broader Shrek franchise. In many ways the movie is much like its predecessors: Antonio Banderas reprises the titular Puss as a parody of his most iconic live action role of The Masked Swordsman Zorro; there are many jokes aimed at the kids in the audience (and a few at the adults); and it, like all the best entries in the franchise, gives off the sort of charming fairy tale vibes that capture the imagination.
What you might not have expected was the story of a man grappling with the existential inescapability of his own death. You might not have expected to see him develop overwhelming anxiety stemming from his inability to process true fear for the first time. You might not have expected to see him have a relatively realistically-depicted panic attack or to see the ways his primal reactions to that fear damage his relationships and erode his friends’ trust in him.
You might not have expected to see Puss in Boots look death in the face and run away terrified.
We are all going to die one day. That fact has haunted humanity for as long as we can remember. “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest surviving piece of literature, is about a man battling gods and monsters on a quest for immortality, only to be forced to make peace with his mortality and accept his death. Puss doesn’t die at the end of this movie, but the theme is much the same.
As you might expect from someone with nine lives, Puss has internalized the idea that he’s practically immortal and that nothing can really hurt him. We see him swagger around accordingly, but when he’s only got a single life left, everything becomes a little more dangerous. Confronted by the physical manifestation of death, who manages to make Puss bleed for the first time since he became a hero, Puss — a character defined by his recklessness and love of adventure — decides to hide. So when he learns of a fallen shooting star that can grant any wish, he decides to try to win back his near-immortality.
By way of a quick summary, Puss teams up with a new nameless dog friend and his ex-fiancé, Kitty, on this journey. He forges new connections and rekindles old flames along the way, but he remains hounded by Death (as well as many others trying to get the star for themselves) at every turn. He opens up over the course of the film; he fully befriends his dog companion who serves the role of a therapy dog in the midst of his panic attack, and he finally manages to reconnect with Kitty. After being separated from them, though, Puss is confronted by the spirit of his past lives, who think his new-found emotional vulnerability is making him weak.
He is interrupted while being berated by them by a specter that has been following him since the beginning. It is here that Puss discovers this being is literally death. In the ensuing terror and panic he flees, dashing directly toward the star and unthinkingly abandoning his friends in an effort to get there as quickly as possible.
Just moments away from making his wish (and destroying Kitty’s trust in him, as he had agreed to share the wish), Death once again confronts him. Death throws Puss’ sword at his feet, telling him to pick it up and fight instead of taking the coward's way out. Puss, in a feat of both literal and metaphorical herculean strength, does.
He spent the whole movie learning what made his life actually valuable, and he decides in this final hour to fight for this life instead of returning to his old, over-confident and vapid self. At the start of the film, Puss was obsessed with being a legendary hero, which he thought was possible only under the pretense that nothing could really hurt him. Here, though, he decides to embrace his new self: not quite fearless but brave. For the first time since becoming a legend, he has something to lose, but he is still willing to fight, and that is what makes him a true hero that we all can look up to.
His fight with Death is beautiful to watch — a true wonder of animation that highlights the value of the brighter and more expressive style DreamWorks adopted for this movie. A particular high point is when Puss saves his life with a knife Kitty had given him while his sword was lost and he was vulnerable. The moment cements their connection and the theme that opening up and being vulnerable with the people we love makes us stronger. In the end, Death eventually realizes that the Puss he is fighting is no longer the same cat who treated his previous eight lives so flippantly, and Death decides not to prematurely end Puss’ ninth life.
Leaving him with a reminder that they will meet again, Puss and his friends get their happy ending, sailing off into greater adventures. But he does so with the knowledge of the fleetingness of his own life, something which pushes him to savor it all the more.
I don’t want to make this seem like some melodramatic, overly serious film or anything like that. Ultimately, it’s a children’s movie, and all its themes are told in child-friendly and accessible ways. But this movie is likely to be many kids' first confrontation with the fear of death. It manages to explore this idea in a kid-friendly way without watering it down, and that’s an incredible feat in a world where children’s stories are not usually respected as works of art with things to say.
Children's stories have the potential to explore complicated ideas and be just as deep as their adult counterparts if we let them.
The movie teaches us that we’re going to die one day, same as Puss, but we can’t let that hold us back. We can’t let it stop us from having grand adventures, from fighting for this life, or from being the best heroes that we can be.