The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once offered a bit of stoic wisdom about the importance of being grateful for the things we have.
“Treat what you don't have as nonexistent,” Aurelius wrote in Meditations. ”Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them.”
I thought of Aurelius’s quote after watching Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, the latest movie featuring the fairytale furball DreamWorks introduced in Shrek 2 (2004).
The Last Wish begins with Puss once again causing mischief in swashbuckling style with carefree bravado. “Who is your favorite fearless hero,” Puss (Antonio Banderas) sings as he throws a party in the governor's house—without permission.
The governor is none too happy with our hero, but Puss fights his way out and defeats a giant he accidentally awakened. Things take a turn, however, when our hero decides to linger to soak in the applause of the cheering crowd—and a mission bell falls on him.
At first, Puss isn’t worried. He has nine lives! But his concern grows when he learns that eight of those lives are already spent—a good economic lesson there—and that he is being pursued by a mysterious wolf who has his eyes set on Puss’s last life.
After a brief stint at the home of an old woman who collects cats, Puss decides he needs to get his hands on the Wishing Star to reclaim his lost lives, putting him at odds with Goldilocks, the Three Bears, and Big Jack Horner, who also want to get the star. With the help of one old friend—Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek)—and one new friend—a dog named Perrito (Harvey Guillén)—Puss sets out for the Dark Forest to retrieve the prize before Jack Horner or Goldilocks.
In this sense, the Wishing Star serves as the macguffin for our hero and his antagonists, who face off against one another in a spaghetti-Western styled quest. But the writers of Last Wish have a warning about praying for miracles on shooting stars and remind us of an important lesson: don’t forget the blessings right in front of you while dreaming about what’s over the rainbow.
This message is conveyed through all of the story’s main characters. For Puss and Kitty, it comes when they learn that maybe what they really desire doesn’t require a wish, just a choice.
For Perrito, who provides comic relief through the film, it’s reflected in his entire story. It begins when he cheerfully tells Puss how his own family put him in a sock and threw him into a river when they abandoned him. Despite his hardships, he is grateful for everything around him—a stark contrast to the story’s villain, Big Jack Horner—which helps our heroes survive danger in the Dark Forest.
“I think all you have to do is stop and smell the roses,” Perrito says when the heroes face a field of deadly roses (who are defeated by submission, not swords).
The most moving example of appreciating what we have involves Goldilocks and her adopted family—the Three Bears. Goldi and her family clearly adore one another (when they’re not squabbling, as families do). It’s clear they would do anything for each other. Yet we learn Goldi, who was orphaned as a small child, is seeking the Wishing Star so she can wish for a new family. She can’t see what Perrito sees: that she’s already found her family.
“Speaking as one orphan to another, Goldi,” says Perrito, “you won the orphan lottery.”
That is the test for Goldi: to see if she can learn to cherish what she already has.
For Jack Horner, there is no test. He’s just a bad guy. “I really have my work cut out for me on this one,” says a Jiminy Cricket-like bug tasked with being Jack’s conscience.
It’s not just that Jack wants the Wishing Star for raw power, unlike Goldie and Puss. Nor is it that he has no problem watching his men get devoured by flowers or shooting them with deadly unicorn arrows. We also see that Jack is incapable of appreciating his own good fortune.
“You know, I never had much as a kid. Just loving parents, stability, and a mansion... and a thriving baked goods enterprise for me to inherit. Useless crap like that,” Jack tells his conscience.
It’s meant to be funny, and it is. But there’s a dark reality to what Jack Horner is describing.
“The condition of the envious man is the most emphatically miserable,” the famous playwright Joseph Addison once observed; “he is not only incapable of rejoicing in another's merit or success, but lives in a world wherein all mankind are in a plot against [him].”
Instead of desiring the things we don’t have, we should cherish the things we do have, as Marcus Aurelius observed nearly two thousand years ago.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish reminds us it could mean the difference between us finding love and happiness, or becoming “an irredeemable monster”—the words of his conscience—like Big Jack Horner.