Over 20 years have passed since the release of the pop culture-defining (and endless meme-fuelling) animated classic Shrek. I was one year old when it hit the big screen in 2001, and since then the world has continued to spin with much more occurring and changing than just the popularity of animation. When Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was announced, there was an appropriate amount of hesitation. As a sequel to a rather unimaginative and quickly forgotten spinoff coming ten years later, this film had to have something up its fur-lined sleeves to make it not only a film to get excited about, but one to remember. And of course, it did.
The Last Wish follows our favourite fearless hero, Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas), faced with the realisation that he’s on his ninth and final life. On the hunt for the last wishing star to grant him back his lives, The Last Wish provides us with a traditional fairytale adventure that both recognises and understands its audience on an important level, serving us a reminder that we were sorely in need of.
If the death count and amount of explicit swear words bleeped out of this film didn’t make it clear already, The Last Wish isn’t really a children’s animation. Director Joel Crawford manages to target the now young adults who hold Shrek in a significant place in their collective memory and then grew up surrounded by an ever-increasing expansion of media multitasking as well as growing economic, academic, and health care stresses. Nowadays, 44% of young people expressed feeling “more anxious” than before COVID according to a study conducted by The Princes Trust, while one-quarter of young adults say the cost of living crisis is the “leading cause of anxiety in their life”.
So with everything going on, many people of this age seem acutely aware that this life — while only our first — is also our last, and the anxiety that comes with this knowledge can be overwhelming. It feels unfair that on top of finishing degrees or starting job hunts, there seems to be an endless number of other, greater things to be worrying about (there’s a reason doomscrolling was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2020) when we should be having “the best years of our lives.”
This is why The Last Wish has had such a quietly profound impact on audiences. Seeing Puss in Boots, a character defined by his fearlessness and lust for life, run scared when faced with the realities of the world reminds us that we’re not alone in these existential frights. And similarly, if he can learn to reconnect with the wonders that come with living, we can too.
This story about anxiety, connection, and healing is also enhanced by its fairy tale elements. Fairy tales as a medium are rooted in community and youth. Shared around a campfire or to a child tucked up in bed, these tales are cautionary, told to make sure the young understand that the world is full of big bad wolves and terrible witches. By nature then, The Last Wish embeds itself in nostalgia for these things — and for childhood itself — by creating its own fairy tale world. Importantly though, it makes sure not to wallow in the past by deconstructing those fairy tale tropes we know and love. Fearless Puss runs scared from death, Little — now big — Jack Horner seeks ultimate magical power, and Goldilocks, having been adopted by the Three Bears, leads them in a family of crime.
Even the art style of these characters and this fantasy world have changed with the times. Inspired by 2018’s groundbreaking Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Last Wish embraces hand-drawn, painterly styles with swapping frame-rates and 2.5D animation. Together with the fairy tale tropes and the way they’re presented, The Last Wish poses a subversion that is needed, allowing it to tell this tale about the importance of embracing nostalgia for our pasts without letting it cloud hopes for our futures, despite the added stresses of modern life.
The Last Wish delves into a world both familiar and new as Puss does the same, both literally as he tests the waters of retirement at Mama Luna’s and ventures into the unknown of the Black Forest, and figuratively as he sees the world through new eyes of his ninth life. Over his adventures, he reconnects with the people around him, learning that it is friends and loved ones who can soothe the anxieties of an often overwhelming world just by being near. It is this understanding that allows him the courage to also reconnect with the world around him. It’s a lesson that the bad must come with the good, and that the familiar is constantly changing — for better and worse — but nevertheless, there will always be beauty to be found around us. We can’t wish away the anxieties that come with life, but we can find the people who help us see the shooting stars.
The first time I saw The Last Wish at the cinema (because yes, I saw it multiple times) there wasn’t a single child in sight. Instead, it was me, my friends, and dozens of other young adults. As the film progressed, our muffled gasps and laughs got louder and louder until we were all comfortable making noises and sharing in the experience — and that’s what it comes down to. Fairy tales have always been a conduit of connection no matter what was happening in the world, even when they’ve been mediated through other forms like The Last Wish.
Anyone dealing with the anxieties of modern multimedia life can find ways to help themselves cope, but sometimes it is simply enough to know you’re not alone. Puss finds his little family of weirdos, and we can find a similar sense of community from this film, like a fairy tale to be told to a loved one whenever life feels a bit too daunting.