I entered The Last Wish skeptical. I'd heard good things about it, but it’s a sequel from a mediocre spinoff: a decade-old spinoff of an iconic series that had not been great since almost a decade before the first Puss in Boots movie was released.
I thought it was more than likely to be (yet) another movie nobody asked for from a creativity-bankrupt Hollywood.
Boy, was I wrong.
It's a Great Movie, but . . .
Let me get a few things out of the way:
The Last Wish is unapologetically a children’s movie with gags (like the cuteness competition) and characters (like Perrito) that made me self-conscious about watching the movie without using a child as an excuse.
I also thought that, in some ways, the movie needed a few touch-ups. The animation was a tad jarring: it fluctuated from traditional Dreamworks animation to animation from Into the Spiderverse.
The reveal that The Big Bad Wolf was Death was so obvious that I thought even children had figured it out in his first scene. But they unveiled that "big plot twist" three-quarters into the movie.
And on top of that, the dialogue occasionally used threadbare colloquialisms that stopped being cool during the Bush (W) presidency (“I’m Death, straight up").
All this said, this movie was a welcome shift from what we have come to expect from kids’ content.
There were Real Stakes
To my recollection, this movie had a body count of 15 (23 if you count Puss’s eight deaths). I never thought the bad guy was going to win, but I thought that the directors might kill off Puss in a heroic sacrifice.
Death was maybe the most frightening animated character of all time, and Puss’s fear felt real.
Contrast this to pretty much all Disney content today, where the hero never fears for her life, is constantly making wisecracks, and experiences no character arc except for accepting that she is marvelous and gets everything she ever wanted in the end.
Speaking of which:
The Character Arcs were Authentic, Universal, and Heroic
Puss’s growth was not the discovery of powers he secretly had all along, or “accepting himself”, but in rejecting who he always dreamed of being.
In Frozen, Elsa’s character arc is one of pride. Puss’ is of humility.
Puss had the chance to literally reclaim his life (or lives in this case). But instead, he allowed Puss, the shallow, self-congratulating “legend” to die for a better version of himself, who embraces love and its difficulties.
Death to self is the goal of any religion with merit. It’s sainthood, Nirvana, “becoming a man,” or whatever you want to call it. Puss experiences it.
Goldilocks, in a way, does as well. Instead of fulfilling her wish for the perfect family, she embraces her adoptive family. She ceases to chase after “the perfect life,” or rather, she kills it in favor of what she already has.
Even Mama Bear, in the most heartbreaking scene of the movie, accepts she can’t make Goldilocks happy and so agrees to risk her life to sacrifice her own happiness for that of Goldilocks.
Every single one of these characters had to let go of pride, and their dreams, to live in a fuller more arduous reality.
While Disney is getting into political spats and focusing on their “not-so-secret gay agenda,” Dreamworks tells a human story.
While every Disney movie today seems to boil down to wish fulfillment, Dreamworks makes a movie where characters deny their own wishes for the good of others, and, by extension, the good of themselves.
Stories Like This Make Us Better
We all seem to agree that children are impressionable and that stories are a way of forming them. If you’re intending to make a movie to be viewed by millions of children, you have a responsibility.
We have been woefully neglectful of that responsibility.
We teach children “happily ever after” without ever explaining what that means.
It does not only mean “accepting yourself.” It takes more than an affirming speech. It does not mean to be so petulantly “yourself” that the entire world recognizes your awesomeness and embraces you for who you are.
It means experiencing real growth in yourself, not just your self-identity. It means not only taking chances but also responsibility.
In the words of Wesley from The Princess Bride, “Life is pain. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something.”
We have been selling children a life that they can never truly buy even if they buy into it.
The Last Wish captures a child’s imagination while also imparting real-life lessons onto them.
At the end of the movie, Death actually tells Puss he’ll be back. Puss does not respond by “laughing in the face of Death," as he did earlier in the movie, but rather acknowledges Death as a fact of life that he can never defeat. He can only meet Death courageously.
How many other children’s movies would have the guts to make “memento mori” their departing message?
We need to teach children these lessons not so they become who we want them to be, not so they vote a certain way or become activists. And not so they can aspire to and ultimate goal of “being nice.”
We need to teach children these lessons because they’re true and they prepare them to find happiness and purpose in a life of pain.