There are a host of villains and supposed villains in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, ranging from a power-mad Big Jack Horner voiced by John Mulaney to a red-eyed, scythe-wielding wolf (Wagner Moura) who’s the literal personification of death. But as we see in one of the DreamWorks movie’s most affecting scenes, the feline hero’s real foe—the one he can’t tear down with even the sharpest of swords or claws—is his own anxiety.
Ever since the long-awaited sequel hit theaters in December, one of the most talked-about scenes is the one in which Puss has a panic attack. It comes after the caped kitty finds out he’s burned through eight of his nine lives and sets off on a quest to find the mythical Last Wish to (hopefully) restore them. In other words, the arrogant and fearless Puss in Boots is forced to confront his own impermanence. If it sounds like a lot for an animated movie to tackle, well, that’s kind of the point.
“It’s about him discovering mortality, but it’s also about him discovering vulnerability,” director Joel Crawford recently told The Daily Beast over Zoom. “He has this kind of immortal point of view; he’s like a superhero. And we really wanted to make sure he embraced his vulnerability. And that, I think, is best showcased in the scene where Puss in Boots has so much anxiety that it paralyzes him.”
The scene in question (which you can see above) finds Puss in Boots deep in the Dark Forest, terrified after spotting the Wolf (aka Death), who’s been relentlessly stalking him. Overcome with fear, he slumps against a tree while his vision gets blurry, his breathing gets heavier, and his pounding heartbeat drowns out every sound around him. That’s when his new pal, the adorably affable dog Perrito (voiced by Harvey Guillén), sees Puss suffering and silently lays his head down on the cat’s belly. After a few moments, Puss exhales, calmly pets Perrito, and is able to pick himself back up.
It’s a strikingly authentic depiction of a panic attack that the filmmakers achieved by collaborating through every step of the process, beginning with the script from Paul Fisher. His first draft, Crawford recalls, had more dialogue in the scene, but Crawford and his team agreed that it could and should be done with fewer words. Then the scene moved to storyboard artist Taylor Meacham, who had had a panic attack a few months prior and personally requested to storyboard the sequence so he could include intimate details like Puss’ blurred vision and racing heartbeat.
Next, it got to a team of four animators, including Prashanth Cavale, who recently shared a viral clip of the scene on Twitter and was the one who animated the moment when Perrito lays his head on Puss’ belly—a detail they reworked several times to achieve the right timing. In marrying visuals and sounds to convey the emotion needed, the process included cinematography—Chris Stover, head of layout, tapped into a shallow depth of field where even Puss’ nose was out of focus—to the sound department, which worked on fine-tuning Puss’ breathing.
“When Puss is in this state of panic, he can’t hear. All you can hear is his heartbeat and his shallow breath. We then match that with the visual of his vision getting blurred; he can’t see. To convey what was needed there, we used the one sense that Puss still had left. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, but he could feel and touch,” Crawford explains. “And it’s just such a beautiful moment when the dog, who has this pure heart, comes in and it’s instinctual. He just lays his head on the belly, and he’s not doing it because he thinks it’ll fix the situation. He just doesn’t know what to do, and he’s there for his friend. And that connection allows for Puss’ breathing to come down. So it was a constant reworking and finding those elements. But we’re so proud of how it turned out.”
The collaboration even extended to Antonio Banderas and his voice acting. According to Crawford, it was a scene that really hit home for the actor, who suffered a heart attack in 2017 that gave him a new outlook on life.
“Antonio was completely ready for this moment. From the very beginning, the first time we pitched where we were going to go in this movie to Antonio, he got really passionate about showing the world another side of Puss in Boots,” Crawford says. “We’ve only seen [Puss in Boots] as a fearless hero—he’s funny, he kind of stole the show in Shrek 2 when he was introduced. He, a lot of times, plays for comedy, or heroics. And Antonio was very honest with us about where he’s been in his personal life. Antonio had years ago experienced a heart attack, and that jarred him so much. And, really, [the feeling that] this experience of life is temporary, and to live in the moment and make the most of it was a personal agenda for Antonio.”
Not only were the sounds and visuals of the scene so crucial, but so was nailing the tone. This isn’t a scene that’s played up for laughs or ends with a punchline. Instead, Crawford and his team let the scene breathe—a refreshing yet risky decision for an animated movie with a tight runtime. The director recalls at one point having a conversation about whether or not Puss should rub Perrito’s belly in that moment, as a callback to an earlier, much sillier scene in which Perrito describes wanting to be a therapy dog who lifts his shirt up so people can rub his belly.
“It was making those choices to go, yeah, we’re going to depart from the expectation, especially in an animated movie, that we don’t play it for laughs,” Crawford says about “not watering down” the emotion. “We don’t literally connect it that [Perrito] got his belly rubbed. But he did so much more. He elevated himself to the situation, and did a natural thing. I have a dog myself, and you see the way dogs can just lay their head in your lap and look up at you. It’s pulling from real life.”
Surprisingly, the panic attack scene wasn’t included in one of the first internal screenings of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. According to Crawford, they added it back in after realizing it served an essential plot need; it would’ve felt contrived for Puss to take the big step of asking for help, like he does later in the movie, without a moment of putting him in a corner and forcing him to be vulnerable first. After he comes down from his panic attack, he’s able to open up to Perrito about how he’s on his last life and how he regrets the way he treated Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek) in the past. He lets his guard down by admitting aloud, “I am down to my last life and I am afraid,” and ultimately, he’s rewarded for it.
“It was important to us to make that believable. Sometimes when people need help, they’re not in a position to feel like they can ask, and that was the case with Puss in Boots,” Crawford says, adding that, like the Shrek films before it, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish leans into the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, “these cautionary tales that brought you into a dark forest, made you feel fear, but then brought you back out to the light, and in that contrast you can appreciate the brightness.”
That’s the panic attack scene in a nutshell, and it’s clearly struck a chord. In mid-January, clips of the scene started going viral on social media, with countless people praising the film—which has since been nominated for an Oscar—for its true-to-life portrayal of a panic attack.
“It’s not common to see an animated movie have scenes that are going viral that are deep and emotional, I’d say. You’re expecting comedic things, or action. So that was what was just so wonderful to see,” Crawford says.
“Because we make these movies to share a message, and I wholeheartedly believe in the message of this movie that our lives are special,” he adds. “And if we can allow ourselves to be real and really look at who we have in our life, and appreciate those people, it could be a ripple of positivity that makes the world a better place. For that positivity to be celebrated online is really special.”