If you were asked to name the highest-grossing Canadian film of 2021, there is a good chance that you might have to yelp for help.
Yes, Paw Patrol: The Movie took home that particular box-office honour the other year, earning an astounding $7.6-million, many millions more than its closest competitor. And yes, Paw Patrol is, despite all assumptions to the contrary, a thoroughly Canadian thing – perhaps the most successful franchise that this country has ever produced.
Produced by the Toronto-based children’s entertainment company, Spin Master, the first Paw Patrol movie about talkin’, rescuin’, lesson-learnin’ dogs was directed by a Canadian (Cal Brunker), written by Canadians (Brunker and co-writer Bob Barlen), animated largely by Canadians (Montreal’s Mikros Animation) and voiced by Canadians (including veteran comic actor Ron Pardo).
And now, Spin Master’s cash-cow pups are set to conquer the box office – and the toy shelves – all over again with Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie, which is set to open in theatres across Canada and the United States this Friday. The film represents a massive leap forward for the company, with several steps up in size, style and celebrity voices: Empire’s Taraji P. Henson voices the film’s lead villain, while everyone from James Marsden to Kim Kardashian to Chris Rock pop by for cameos.
“This is a made-in-Canada success story,” says Jennifer Dodge, a producer on the sequel and president of Spin Master’s entertainment division. “We learned so much from the first movie, which had a short schedule and a very conservative budget. So on the second, we knew we could take those original assets and update the things we wanted to deliver something bigger.”
While Spin Master would not reveal the budgets from either the first film or The Mighty Movie – except to say that the sequel had a “conservative increase” – it’s clear from the big-screen action that this is not your toddler’s Paw Patrol. Whereas the 11-minute television episodes – dominating Netflix and anywhere else where your child finds themselves glued to a screen – are best described as no-frills CGI adventures, the film levels the action up to near-Pixar, or at the very least Illumination-worthy, levels of graphics and design.
And it was all done on a faster-than-Chase’s-fire-engine timeline: The second film arrives barely 26 months after the first was released.
“It was record speed, and the team is still recovering from it – normally three years is a comfortable gap,” says Brunker, who re-teamed with Barlen to write the sequel as the first film was finishing postproduction.
“The last six months of work on the first movie was all lighting and compositing and effects, not much creative thinking. So we had that section of our brains free to work on the script so the movie was ready to go if audiences embraced the first. It meant late nights and weekends, but the team did an amazing job.”
The main reason for the sweat-equity push: Spin Master and U.S. partner Paramount Pictures saw an opening in the market and seized upon it: between now and American Thanksgiving in November, there isn’t a single new family-friendly release heading to theatres. Chase, Marshall, Skye and the rest of the pups – who gain superpowers this time around, giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe a run for its money – have six long weeks at the multiplex to themselves before Universal Studios’ Trolls sequel comes calling, quickly followed by Disney’s Wish and then Warner Bros.’ Wonka.
“Many of us are television producers first, so we’re used to tight turnarounds,” Dodge says.
Spin Master is also used to pushing toys to match its media output, a fact and strategy that becomes clear during the first minutes of The Mighty Movie, when the pups command a massive aircraft carrier to complete a mission – the same aircraft carrier that can be found online at the company’s website (complete with Chase action figure and Mighty Pups Cruiser) for $129. Which leads to the chicken-egg question of what comes first when making a Paw Patrol movie: the story, or the toys?
“The iterative process in which we design those vehicles and the film is our secret sauce at Spin,” Dodge says. “For us, it’s always about the story first – in this case, telling a compelling story about Skye and her history and journey, and within that tableaux asking what are the vehicles and superhero uniforms we want to see, then working out the action sequences. Aesthetically, it’s driven by our art team on the movie, but working in consultation with our toy design team.”
Brunker adds: “Because this film is all about Skye’s story, and she’s a helicopter pup, we saw it as plane-centric. So what can we do there with vehicles? We brainstormed together with a small team of artists, then Spin Master comes in and looked at it to ask, ‘Can we actually make these? Will kids love them?’”
As Dodge puts it: “Our saying is ‘show to shelf’ – what we do on the show is what ends up on the shelf, not the reverse.”
And while that motto might be music to children’s ears – and an alarming series of cash-register ka-chings to parents’ – it has helped ensure that Paw Patrol remains on its worldwide roll, with the films bringing in new audiences just as others age out. Which all leads to the inevitable question of whether a third movie is already in development before the second hits theatres.
“What I would say,” Dodge says, “is that at Spin Master we’re always planning ahead.”
Or to paraphrase the pups: No franchise is too big, no pup is too small.
Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie
Directed by Cal Brunker
Written by Cal Brunker and Bob Barlen
Featuring the voices of Mckenna Grace, Taraji P. Henson and Ron Pardo
Classification N/A; 92 minutes
Opens in theatres Sept. 29
The notion of a Paw Patrol sequel feels less like an event for parents than an inevitability: If you have children under the age of eight, there is a better-than-decent chance that you will be exposed to The Mighty Movie sooner or later. But that doesn’t mean that the production has to be a chore to endure, a possibility that the Canadian writing-directing team of Cal Brunker and Bob Barlen latch onto early on. While not approaching the emotional complexity or layered themes of a Pixar title – nor the go-for-broke slapstick of a Minions flick – The Mighty Movie goes big on the eye candy and pint-sized thrills that kids desire.
This is a vastly more interesting Paw Patrol adventure to behold than any of the inane 11-minute adventures dominating YouTube and Netflix – and every now and then it delivers a genuine chuckle for the adult crowd, thanks to a slightly self-aware script and more celebrity cameos than an episode of Entourage. (Fortunately no sight of Jeremy Piven, though.) And its superhero-y story – everyone’s favourite rescue pups get the Marvel treatment this time – ensure gentle enough thrills to engage kids who just aged out of the small-screen franchise. BARRY HERTZ