When director Joel Crawford considered including a realistic panic attack in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” he knew it would be an important moment for kids and adults alike.

“We know so many people who struggle with anxiety or we struggle with it and have panic attacks ourselves,” Crawford says. “Children can handle these scenes, maybe sometimes better than adults, and it can help everyone to feel seen if we create a scene that feels like it’s drawn from something that really happens.”

In the scene, Puss is overwhelmed by fear as he considers that he’s used up eight of his nine lives. Though the character’s signature state of mind is that of a daring, playful and extroverted cat, this new film takes him in a more vulnerable direction.

As Puss is struck by panic, he slumps down the side of a tree while he breathes heavily and tries to regain his calm. As he goes through the panic attack, his friend, a little dog named Perrito, gently places his head on Puss’ stomach to soothe him. While he pets Perrito, the charismatic feline can breathe normally again and regains his peace of mind.

Lynn Bufka, a clinician with training in the area of panic attacks and associate chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association, says breath control is a crucial part of learning to manage panic attacks and Perrito’s support is also a significant lesson.

“Breathing and working with your breath is very important in terms of learning to manage anxiety and panic attacks because the cycle of a panic attack can involve this type of heavy, rapid breathing that if you learn to control you can better manage what happens,” Bufka says. “Also, the way Perrito comforts Puss is very important because he’s not there telling the cat he just has to get over it. He’s there accepting him and just being there for him.”

While most of the film moves quickly through the many adventures of Puss and his friends, Crawford chose to slow down the moment that his main character is consumed by his fears. He worked with his animators and sound team to make a scene that wasn’t undermined by anything artificial or unnatural.

“Animation can definitely be a place for escapism, for these sort of fairytale worlds,” Crawford says. “But what we were after was a fairytale look that was also grounded in realism with Puss’ panic attack. These feelings are real and important.”

Sound designer Jason Jennings and supervising sound editor Julian Slater collaborated with Crawford and the filmmakers to create a sound palette that grounded the panic attack. Jennings was able to pull from personal experience, along with many of the creatives.

“I’ve had a panic attack and I thought I was having a heart attack,” Jennings says. “You just become overwhelmed and it’s like the world kind of goes away and all you’re focused on at that moment is your heart and your breathing. So that’s why we wanted to really focus on just those two things. Antonio Banderas’ voice acting for that moment is so wonderful because he really does the breathing that’s accelerated as the panic attack is happening, and then when Perrito puts his head on Puss’ leg, his breathing slowly comes back down.”

In the scene just before the panic attack, Puss and his friends are fighting to continue their journey, so the sound is full of dialogue, music and other elements. Jennings and his team decided to create a contrast from the earlier scene by just using the sound of breathing and a real heartbeat.

“We took a little bit of cinematic license with the sound of the heartbeat,” Jennings says. “We did things to make it feel fuller, more low frequency, more low energy because just a normal heartbeat sound would be a bit underwhelming. We wanted the audience to feel what Puss felt about his own heartbeat. He was hearing it through his entire body like it took over his whole world.”

Researcher and former film executive, Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D, think scenes like this one can be a positive way to engage kids through film and media and open communication between parents and children.

“These moments are so important,” says Uhls. “I think this is a great first step and I think companies that are behind films like this can make an even bigger difference if they offer materials that can extend the conversation, maybe a QR code that people can scan that can take them to more information about how to have a conversation with their kids about anxiety and panic attacks. Just having a realistic moment like this can start so many conversations, though.”

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