Puss in Boots 2 knows its audience. Sure, it’s rated a PG, and the screening I went to was full of hyped-up kids, but when it comes to Shrek, everyone knows the main demographic is Gen Zers and Millennials with anxiety disorders.
Maybe, at one point, our love for the Shrek movies was ironic and part of a generational inside joke, but when push comes to shove, I’m not afraid to admit that the Shrek universe has some damn good movies.
If you’ve read my Puss in Boots 2 review (warning: spoilers ahead!) you’ll know that I think highly of that silly little cat. It has immersive animation, great writing, and a compelling plot, but I’m not embarrassed to say the animated movie resonated deeply in a way that I didn’t expect: it helped convey and verbalize anxiety in a way I’d never seen on-screen before.
In the family movie, after recklessly wasting eight of his nine cat lives, Puss in Boots is confronted with his mortality. The little hairs on his back stand up, he feels a chill in the air, and the spectre of Death hangs heavy over him.
Whenever it seems like he’s enjoying himself or has forgotten his underlying fear of Death for a moment, the hooded wolf ensures his presence is felt. Similar to how The Black Dog animation helped to encapsulate the way we carry depression with us, Death feels like the perfect symbol of anxiety.
For many people, anxiety involves some kind of worst-case scenario which, when faced with it, causes our bodies to enter fight-or-flight mode. And what is a worse scenario than death?
Despite being a seasoned adventurer, Puss ended up doing what a lot of us do when faced with anxiety and go for ‘flight’: consistently running away from the problem and going to extreme lengths to avoid it. The idea of facing it causes him to panic — and in a scene that is already being widely praised on social media, we see Puss struggle through a panic attack.
The history of panic attacks in movies and TV series is less-than-ideal (if you’ve watched the animated series Velma, I just wanted to throw out there that non-consensually kissing someone isn’t the way to stop a panic attack), but this comedy movie about a cat in itty-bitty boots conveyed the most accurate one I’d ever seen.
It wasn’t romanticized, overly-dramatised, nor was its seriousness underplayed. Instead, we saw Puss go through the motions and breathe until he felt calmer. Not only was it refreshing to see a panic attack accurately portrayed on-screen, but I also believe it was a great way of normalizing it to children, which will go some way toward destigmatizing anxiety and mental health as they grow up.
But children aren’t the only ones who can learn something from the cartoon character portraying anxiety on-screen. After trying everything to avoid Death, including running away, fighting, and even wishing on a star, Puss comes to realize that the only way he can truly ‘defeat’ Death is by accepting that he can’t defeat it.
The only way to move past Death was to stop being afraid of it, and to tolerate the uncertainty of life and mortality. Similarly, while we can’t ever fully avoid unpleasant outcomes to situations, what we can do is accept that there are just some things in life that we can’t control.
We can overthink, undergo compulsions, or reassurance-seek until we’re blue in the face — but it’s only through tolerating uncertainty that we learn to be less afraid of it: no matter how that uncertainty ends up manifesting. Because I live with health anxiety, my fear can end up being, quite literally, death.
Lately, I’d been putting off and avoiding a blood test that I knew I should be getting because running away from my anxiety was easier than confronting the uncertainty of health. But as soon as I left the screening, I ended up booking that blood test. And it’s all down to Puss in Boots.