() — One of the most moving and resonant sequences in a movie this awards season comes from a rare source: “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.”
The DreamWorks film, a sequel to a “Shrek” spin-off, follows the feline as he tries to reclaim eight of the nine lives he has lived. He spends most of the film committing acts of daring with style and charm to spare, everything audiences expect from Puss in Boots.
But during a crucial sequence, Gato loses his faith, and panic and fear threaten to consume him.
Cat slumps against a tree in a forest, huffing and puffing. His racing heartbeat drowns out every other sound in the forest where he lies. His friend, the good-natured therapy dog Puppy, notices that Puss is distraught and rests his head on our feline hero’s tummy. Cat exhales a few times, calmly strokes Puppy and manages to pull himself together.
It’s a quiet, brief moment in a film aimed at young viewers and families. But it’s resonating with many viewers for its depiction of what it’s like to have a panic attack and the relief of getting over it.
Very fortunate to have animated the Panic attack bit on Puss in Boots: The Last Wish!
Beyond thrilled to see all the love it has been getting on social media!
Dog is the kind of friend we all need 🙂#dreamworks #pussinbootsthelastwish #animation pic.twitter.com/Rd7MtPBuak
— prashanth cavale (@CavalePrashanth) January 18, 2023
“That was one of our big goals: to take our audience on a journey that expresses the full range of emotions in life,” Joel Crawford, director of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” said in an interview with .
The film also has hard-won victories, jokes, and apprenticeships, but what gives “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” its staying power is its heart and honesty, even in a fairytale setting. Psychologists spoke to about why it can be shocking to see panic attacks reflected on screen, and how a sword-wielding bipedal cat managed to reflect it quite well.
What does it feel like to have a panic attack?
A panic attack is “basically a wave of powerful physical fear that feels overwhelming,” said David Carbonell, a Chicago clinical psychologist who specializes in fear and phobias. Someone experiencing a panic attack may feel like their heart is beating faster than normal and have trouble catching their breath. Dizziness and tingling in the extremities are also common. But the common thread is always the suffocating fear one feels, even if that fear does not coincide with one’s circumstances.
Lynn Bufka, associate chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association and a physician, likened a panic attack to a desert encounter with a terrifying rattlesnake. Faced with a poisonous enemy, our body triggers a physiological response to the fear that is in front of us. But with a panic attack, there’s usually no obvious cause, and this unknown element can make a panic attack feel even scarier, she said.
How ‘Puss in Boots’ Showed a Panic Attack
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” takes place in the same fairy tale land as the “Shrek” series, with its anthropomorphic animals and ogres with hearts of gold. The new film features Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a villainous adult version of “Little Jack Horner” from the famous nursery rhyme, and Salma Hayek as a feline foil to Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. They all search for a mythical wishing star. If Gato reaches her first, he could get the first eight of her nine lives back.
It’s all very fantastic and funny until it’s not. In a brief but crucial sequence, the cat is overcome with fear and cannot catch his breath. Even his comedy partner, Puppy, straightens up to calmly comfort him. It’s a sobering moment in a fun story.
That this was the case is intentional, Principal Crawford said. The moment was not meant to be laughable, he told , and the film as a whole aims to portray a more vulnerable side of the intrepid cat that audiences are familiar with.
“(Watching) an animated world is a great way to escape,” he said, while noting that there are challenging themes that can be explored through the comfort of fiction.
The process began with the film’s writers Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow, who brought their own experiences to the film’s portrayal of fear and panic, as well as Crawford and co-director Januel Mercado. He then moved on to storyboard artist Taylor Meacham, who drew on his own panic attacks to sketch out what Gato would look like. Everything from “tunnel vision” in which viewers see Gato’s point of view, to his pounding heartbeat taking over the scene, was gleaned from his experiences with panic, he said. Meacham told .
They also ensured that the scene was slowed down to take the time “necessary for Puss in Boots to relax and breathe as he comes out of his attack,” he said. “The contrast between intensity and gradually calming down is another thing that I hope will feel real to viewers.”
Animator Prashanth Cavale even filmed himself for reference for the scene, adding “little squeezes and twitches” to add realistic texture to the scene, Cavale told .
The goal, Crawford said, was to keep the moment from feeling “shallow or forced” and to keep it accessible to viewers of all ages.
“Fear, weakness, anxiety – if anyone has ever felt those emotions, we wanted to make sure this scene related to them,” Crawford said.
Why the scene works, according to psychologists
What audiences see in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is less how a bystander sees a panic attack and more how it feels to have one. A panic attack is often unnoticeable to everyone except the person experiencing it, Bufka and Carbonell said. But in the moment, a panic attack can feel like a catastrophic event, even if it doesn’t on the surface.
“Puss in Boots” isn’t the first example of a popular product featuring a character experiencing a panic attack. Tony Soprano suffered from them on “The Sopranos,” though his were highly exaggerated and unrealistic: It’s rare for people to break down during or after a panic attack, Carbonell said. HBO Max’s new series “Velma” also takes an intensified approach to panic attacks, showing both the exaggerated perspective of its bespectacled protagonist’s panic and subdued reality. (HBO and share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Former ABC News journalist Dan Harris even had a panic attack live while reading a short story, though most co-workers and viewers didn’t know it at the time thanks to his seemingly calm demeanor.
Even if a panic attack portrayed on screen is not a universal representation of the psychological phenomenon, seeing a character have one, particularly in a movie like “Puss in Boots” which will be seen by children and adults alike, can lead to someone to reconsider their own experiences with panic and anxiety and seek help from an expert or loved ones, Bufka said.
“It really helps to normalize the fact that this happens and that you can recover,” he said.
Gato finds comfort in his friend Perrito, who lends a paw to lean on without saying anything. The dog’s response is also a good role model for anyone who knows a loved one is suffering from panic attacks, Carbonell said.
“The goal is to undermine the panic and reduce it to reasonable proportions,” Carbonell said. Just being there for someone and not overwhelming them with suggestions can help them land.
Gato also accepts the help that Puppy offers him in silence. Fighting a panic attack, Carbonell said, can often make it longer and worse. It is the “quicksand of mental illness.” But letting it go and rediscovering calm is often the quickest way to get over it, she said.
For children, especially, seeing a character feel extreme fear and then find comfort in a loved one can be shocking, Bufka said, even if they are unfamiliar with the term “panic attack.”
“People don’t always have the language for their emotions,” he said. “But it’s important to have it on screen, because it helps people feel seen, recognized and not alone.”
Embedded tweet from “Puss In Boots: The Last Wish” included with permission of DreamWorks Animation.