PAW Patrol is a popular (9 seasons popular so far) children’s cartoon, at least here in Canada, where one small boy named Ryder is the Bosley to an intrepid group of puppies who form a rescue operation in their small town of Adventure Bay. Here, every kid under 5 can tell you who their favourite pup is: most will pick Chase, the police officer German Shepherd, or Marshall, the Dalmatian fire fighter. Sky, the Cockapoo helicopter pilot, Rocky the recycling, handyman Schnauzer/Scottie mix, Zuma the water rescue Lab, and Rubble the construction Bulldog round out the PAW Patrol, contributing when Ryder deems it necessary, each episode a lesson in thoughtful problem-solving and selecting appropriate skills. The pups each live in a special doghouse that easily transforms into their custom vehicles or “pupmobiles” and besides the collars that alert them to emergencies, they also wear pup packs that contain tools related to their jobs, like grappling hooks, zip lines, and jet packs. They assemble in a tall tower called The Lookout which serves not just as their lair but as their phone booth (Superman style, where they get into costume). They each have a catchphrase and over the years they’ve made a number of friends – Everest, who helps with snow rescues, Rex, who operates in the jungle, etc. As the show is incredible toyetic and in fact seems to serve primarily as a merchandising machine, each of these special helpers inspires its own toy line, so even if you already had all the original pups, plus their vehicles, and the Lookout, you’ll aslo need all of their specialized snow equipment, jungle ensembles, archeology outfits, etc, etc. With all of my nieces and nephews at some point whole-heartedly devoted to the show (even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his kids are fans), I cannot tell you how many dollars I have spent on these items. As good aunts and uncles, we watched enough episodes to be able to identify the pups, name our favourite (Rubble), utter the correct catch phrases during play, and scorn the show’s main antagonist, a mischievous mayor from a nearby town named Humdinger, who has a harem of cats, of course.
In the movie, which is only available in theatres here in Canada but may be streamed elsewhere on Paramount+, Humdinger has gone to the nearby metropolis of Adventure City to see what trouble can be caused there. The pups are summoned to provide help when he is immediately responsible for a number of catastrophes, including a fireworks display gone horribly wrong, a “hyperloop” subway that does a series of upside-down loops, and a cloud catcher that ensured good weather but of course was overused and goes rogue.
I happened to be hosting my 5 year old niece Ella this weekend, along with 3 rambunctious boys, her older brother and cousins, and thought it might be nice for her and I to watch the movie together. I was surprised to find that all the boys, who have since grown out of the franchise, were keen to watch at all. Having seen the trailer, they’d determined that the movie looked funny, and was probably made for older kids. Indeed, the movie abandons the 2-D animation of children’s cartoon shows and has transformed the pups for a modern movie experience. The kids debated who looked the most different, but seemed to enjoyed the new look overall.
In the big city, the PAW Patrol encounters bigger challenges than they’re used to in their dozy little bay, really raising the stakes of their rescue operation. They also make a new friend a Dachshund named Liberty who’s got street smarts and city savvy. This is a fortuitous choice for a couple of reasons: first, we have a wiener dog in our own house, a pup named Walt who was enjoying movie time with the kids, having 8 hands to pet his extra-long body, and 4 bowls of popcorn to steal from. Walt is still relatively new here, and the current obsession and constant receiver of round the clock attention from the kids. To find that their cartoon counterparts have also adopted a Dachshund was a thrill for the kids, and the fact that Liberty also happened to be a homeless dog provided an important learning opportunity for all of us. These kids live in a small town like the pups on the show normally do, but as we drove them into the much larger city where Sean and I live, we drove by a couple of homeless people, who the kids never fail to spot and need to talk about. The sight is unfamiliar to them, but the concept is of course absurd to them, to all kids I’m sure, that our society just allows certain people to not have a home. We explain as best we can, but we know our excuses are lousy, and they sound particularly hollow when said out loud to innocent children.
When TV shows make the leap to the big screen, it’s an opportunity to expand on the universe, and setting up the pups to perform in the big city is certainly an excellent use of the medium. For me, though, it definitely brought about an uncomfortable line of questioning. Back home in Adventure Bay, the pups get frequent calls from Cap’N Turbot and Farmer Yumi, recurring characters with familiar foibles, who get into predictable and formulaic scrapes and mishaps. In the city, however, you realize the absurdity when small dogs are careening armoured rescue vehicles down crowded city streets, and normal adult human beings trapped in a burning skyscraper don’t object when the only responders are the same dogs who probably spend their days off sniffing each other’s butts and being distracted by squirrels. Suddenly, you’re asking a lot more from your audience.
PAW Patrol: The Movie may look more like Pixar than it normally does on TV, but it is not a movie intended for all audiences. It’s made for children, and the children who watched it with me rated it very highly. They could not have identified the more famous voice cast (including Randall Park, Tyler Perry, Jimmy Kimmel, and Kim Kardashian), but they did appreciate the new design, and actually got up to dance around to the songs – there are over 75 of them, with original contributions from Simple Plan, Alien Ant Farm, and a real catchy bop from Adam Levine. If you have little PAW Patrollers in your home, the movie is sure to be a hit.