Monday, December 26, 2022

'Puss in Boots: The Last Wish' comes to terms with death

Existential anguish has never been this funny

Your favorite fearless hero is back, and he's going through a crisis. After eight feline lifetimes cultivating fame and glory as a daring bandit/swashbuckler/adventurer, Puss in Boots is suddenly confronted with the hard reality of death. He's down to just one life, and for the first time, he's terrified.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a surprising entry in the Shrek franchise. After the end of a century of fantasy dominated by Disney, the first Shrek's acerbic irony made it feel fresh—even if it soon became its own type of stale. Fortunately, The Last Wish doesn't follow that formula. Snark and detachment are thrown out the window (and good riddance!), because this is a movie about death, and to deal with death, you can't do less than open sincerity. With commendable transparency, the movie shows us a hero confronted with his vulnerability, stripped of the pretense that his popularity can keep saving him. The invincible monster slayer is finally afraid, and that makes him feel more real.

Of course, the fact that you're making a movie that takes its theme seriously doesn't mean you can't also make a gut-burstingly funny movie. And here too, the writing deviates from Shrek's juvenile style. The Last Wish goes through the usual repertoire of slapstick violence, but at key moments, it uses its comedy to enhance the point it's making. Unusually for this franchise, in this movie the jokes do a big part of the telling of the story.

In the first act, once our protagonist has been forced to acknowledge his mortality and admit that his hedonistic lifestyle was nothing more than a denial mechanism, his first choice is to hide in a cat shelter. Everything is provided for him: he has a roof, abundant food, warm mittens. But, as he soon realizes, that's no life worthy of the name. The answer to the dread of mortality cannot be to give up agency and let all your choices be made for you. In a joke that tells more than it seems on the first hearing, he's forced to stop using the human toilet and promptly shown the litter box. His line at that moment is, "So this is where dignity goes to die."

Dignity is the key idea here. When we're faced with our state of cosmic abandonment, we may feel what Søren Kierkegaard called the dizziness of freedom, and owning it takes a degree of moral fortitude we're not usually taught to build. When Puss in Boots retreats to the cat shelter, he's taking one of the easy ways out: the abdication of choice. But you cannot cease to make your own choices without also ceasing to respect yourself. The prohibition of using the human toilet can be read as a snapshot of a bigger truth: if you renounce responsibility for your life, you're also renouncing your humanity. An ideal place where you don't have to make any effort is not a place suitable for humans. The safe, comforting refuge will not satisfy you.

This takes us to another key theme of the movie: satisfaction. The writers made the perfect choice of villains for this story: Goldilocks and Jack Horner, archetypes of perpetual insatisfaction. Goldilocks has enough, but she always finds something to criticize. Jack Horner has everything, but he's always greedy for more. Both represent anomalous strategies for coping with the irresolvable insatisfaction of finite life. And both fall into the same mistake when they decide to chase after the wishing star. For Puss in Boots, this is an attempt to replace mundane hedonism with transcendent hedonism—to pray to the heavens for more chances. But it's not a solution: there's no magical fix that will make everything just right. The problem is not that you haven't found your wishing star. Goldilocks is unsatisfied because she has impossible standards. Jack Horner is unsatisfied because he's never needed to make an effort. Puss in Boots is unsatisfied because he can no longer keep telling himself that he'll always have more time. The three of them are looking for the wrong remedy to a nonexistent problem.

I call it nonexistent because the finitude of life is not a new calamity that suddenly befell us; it is the way reality is. It is the normal. It is what is. As existentialist philosophers pointed out, mortality only becomes a problem if we delude ourselves into thinking we can change it. Try as you might, you can't outrun the icy hand of death.

In his essay Summer in Algiers, Albert Camus spoke about the finitude of human life in these terms: "if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have." Our protagonist's quest to regain his nine lives with a miracle is a Quixotic impossible, a desperate last recourse to regain the ability to delude himself. But having his gaze fixed on a star has distracted him from the mundane beauty he already has. He has allowed his legend to supplant his facticity, and now he's unhappy because he can't live up to an idealized self-image that he knows is false.

A brilliant way Puss in Boots: The Last Wish integrates existentialism into humor for children is in the device of the map to the star. Each character sees a different map, with a different emotional tone. This is an effective way of symbolizing how, even if we have similar ideals of happiness, the road to get there is unique to each of us.

What our hero learns at the end of his personal journey is that the quest for perfect satisfaction cannot be completed in a finite world. Death only stops being an adversary when you stop trying to deny it. That's the key to contentment when all you have is one life. And that's how you speak to children about death: with the maturity and honesty that the topic demands.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 because we should celebrate every time a story targeted at children is unafraid to talk openly about death, +1 for the beautiful art style, designed with a resemblance to expressionist brushstrokes that enhance the emotion of each battle by making it feel intensely personal.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Camus, Albert; Kennedy, Ellen Conroy [Translator]. Lyrical and Critical Essays [Vintage Books, 1970].