If you don’t have a toddler in your life, the world of Nick Jr.’s “Paw Patrol” world might not be one you recognize. I myself headed into a screening for “Paw Patrol: The Movie” as an ambivalent aunt, surrounded by little nieces and nephews who just squee in delight at the mere mention of their favorite animated hero pups.
At best, I figured, they will have some fun, and I can be the cool Tia. So, you can imagine my surprised delight to find “Paw Patrol: The Movie” to be engaging, funny, and wonderful.
Much of the credit goes to writer-director Cal Brunker (“The Nut Job 2”) and co-writers Billy Frolick (“Madagascar”) and Bob Barlen (“Arctic Dogs”), who have seamlessly created a movie world where you believe 10-year-olds can run around with their dogs (who, yes, can talk to humans) and save the city from political corruption. Yes, political corruption, but that’s not the only heavy theme peppered throughout the film: There are also messages about caring for your environment, unpacking trauma, owning your fear and way more complex storylines that contribute to the vivid animated world presented.
Young human Ryder (voiced by newcomer Will Brisbin) and his squad of pups run Adventure Bay’s rescue operations. Top pup Chase (Iain Armitage, “The Glass Castle”) has felt safe since Ryder brought him home from the mean streets of Adventure City, a nearby town that sends them an emergency call via spirited dachshund Liberty (Marsai Martin, “Little”). Mayor Humdinger (“Paw Patrol” vet Ron Pardo) has not only won an unopposed election but he’s also putting the city’s dogs and humans in harm’s way through his attempts to create the “fun city” of his dreams.
Despite Chase’s ambivalence over returning to the city where he was once abandoned, the brave crew heads to Adventure City, now a dangerously wacky municipality with a loop-de-loop subway system and the world’s tallest skyscraper. (Mayor Humdinger’s office, of course, in in the penthouse.)
Humdinger’s self-serving high jinks create chaos while Chase develops PTSD over his return to his hometown. His fear of walking around the big, scary city as a tiny pup comes flooding back, and he freezes during a rescue. Despite the support of Ryder and his pup pals, Chase runs away and gets dognapped by the mayor’s henchmen. Suddenly, the “cloud catcher,” a machine meant to capture clouds to study them, is confiscated by Humdinger for his maniacal purposes. With the city about to collapse under the Mayor’s rule, and Chase facing some complicated feelings, the pups must come together, or Adventure City will be lost.
The CG animation in the film is impressive. Using vivid lighting and an inviting aesthetic, the filmmakers set the tone right from the start, bringing both towns vividly to life. The overall look is bright enough for the littlest of littles to glue their eyes to, but not so saturated that it loses anyone over the age of 10.
Adapting any source material from one medium to another can be messy — fans don’t like things to change, but it’s easier to sell a change to young viewers as long as they remain engaged. Wisely, Brunker and his co-writers find a way to deliver a multilayered story that can grab toddlers while keeping older viewers entertained and not groaning at some propagandized messaging. (In fact, adult audiences might even learn a thing or two.)
It’s a complete story, with key moments and characters that you cheer for (Liberty and Chase are big stand-outs) and others you boo and hiss (you just kind of hate to love that awful mayor). The voice cast includes performers who have been voicing “Paw Patrol” characters for years (the show debuted in 2009) alongside experienced newcomers like Armitage, Martin, Brisbin and Shayle Simons (as Zuma). No matter their level of experience with the material, they all sound comfortable in their roles, creating a well-assembled team, one that includes cameos from the likes of Dax Shepard, Kim Kardashian West, Yara Shahidi, Randall Park and Tyler Perry.
As a parent, I appreciated that the filmmakers acknowledged that kids are more intelligent than they’re often given credit for by grown-ups. Chase goes through some real emotions, and the film gives him the time to marinate in those feelings. There’s natural instinct these days to keep kids sheltered from such heaviness, but children have eyes and ears that feed them the world, even when we try to keep negativity at bay. Chase’s process is ideal for opening kids up to talk about their fear in a healthy way, and it might even lend an opening to discussing how the pandemic has changed the world, and how not to fear it.
So yes, to many people’s surprise, including my own — “Paw Patrol: The Movie” is both entertaining and educational, and that’s always a major accomplishment for a family film.
“Paw Patrol: The Movie” opens in U.S. theaters and on Paramount+ August 20.