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If you have a child under the age of 12 – or if you have ever been within the social distance of one – then you likely have complicated feelings about Paw Patrol.
The Canadian television series has been a polarizing force in parenting ever since its first episode premiered in 2013. On the one hand, Paw Patrol’s 11-minute adventures have distracted an untold number of children, giving caregivers much-needed sanity breaks, especially during pandemic-era parenting. On the other hand, Paw Patrol is, well, Paw Patrol. It provokes a visceral response that Pavlov’s own pup couldn’t conjure.
Paw Patrol is formulaic, with each episode following the adventures of the young spiky-haired tech-genius Ryder and his stable of first-responder dogs, who for reasons unexplained live a life of indentured servitude in the danger zone of Adventure Bay. Paw Patrol is repetitive, with the pups explaining and re-explaining their problem-solving methods to hammer home the show’s “pro-social” messaging. Paw Patrol is annoying, with a theme song (“Paw Patrol, Paw Patrol, we’ll be there on the double!”) that will haunt your dreams. And Paw Patrol can be expensive, given that it exists, primarily, to move toys.
Yet while some burned-out parents might be done with Paw Patrol, Paw Patrol ain’t done with parents. In fact, the cash-cow canines are only just getting started. This month, Paw Patrol: The Movie will be released into the world – a big step for the franchise, and a huskie-sized leap for Spin Master Corp., the Toronto-based outfit responsible for the genuine cultural phenomenon, 160 countries and counting.
But can a Canadian company – even one with US$1.57-billion in 2020 revenue, and no shortage of other franchises, including Bakugan and Hatchimals – turn itself into a major Hollywood power player? One that can compete in the cutthroat animation industry, which is dominated by giants (Disney’s Pixar, Universal’s Illumination) and littered with contenders both struggling (Laika) and shuttered (Blue Sky Studios)?
”Our very first conversation of could we, should we, make a film was six or seven years ago. As we got further into the franchise and we found our legs in longer storytelling, we decided that this is the time to make this film,” says Jennifer Dodge, a producer on the movie and president of Spin Master’s entertainment division.
Dodge, who has been with the company since 2009 – save a 2015-2017 stint at Nickelodeon – is careful to emphasize Spin Master’s story as one of “evolution.” Founded in 1994 as a toymaker, the company is today a “global children’s entertainment company.”
”We have three creative sectors: toys, entertainment and digital, which encompasses our mobile gaming groups,” Dodge says. “It’s about having areas of expertise that can drive all those businesses, but also work synergistically across the three creative centres.”
Synergistically speaking, then, Paw Patrol: The Movie is a corporate fantasy come true. Opening Aug. 20 in North American theatres – and available to stream that same day in the U.S. on the nascent Paramount+ service – the film arrives with a collection of 30-plus toys already on shelves (the three-foot-tall Paw Patrol Movie Ultimate City Tower playset retails for $199.99), plus a video game, branded ball pits, kids furniture, backpacks, lunch boxes, Halloween costumes and more.
”Paw Patrol is a true entertainment franchise that exists across multiple screens, platforms and every product category that you can imagine,” Dodge says. “The movie is a moment in time when we’re able to celebrate the size and the scope of the whole property.”
But to effectively make a market impact, Paw Patrol: The Movie needs to look and feel like a big-budget feature film. Less Cocomelon and more Minions. Unlike previous “extended” Paw Patrol productions, such as the 44-minute Ready Race Rescue that was briefly sent to theatres in 2019, this new 88-minute title is a genuine Hollywood-sized event.
Although Spin Master would not reveal the film’s final production budget, the CGI animation here is slicker and more textured than the series, with director Cal Brunker (The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature) and his team reshaping and rebuilding every character, vehicle and environment from scratch. There are celebrity voices (Jimmy Kimmel, Tyler Perry, Kim Kardashian). There is an original song by Adam Levine. And, crucially, there is a made-in-Hollywood partnership between Spin Master, Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Pictures.
”Making a movie was new to Spin, so we helped set up relationships with folks in Los Angeles. And it became clear that Paramount was the No. 1 suitor, because they were rebuilding their studio and starting Paramount+,” says Noah Segal, co-president of Toronto’s Elevation Pictures, which has a long relationship with Spin Master and is handling distribution of the film in Canada. “The idea was that you try to keep control and keep it Canadian. And we were able to build a deal that was advantageous to the creators and get them the biggest flex by dealing with a major U.S. studio.”
Which is how Paw Patrol: The Movie wound up being a rare cultural product: a Canadian-made yet primed-for-America blockbuster-in-waiting. Brunker and his co-writer Bob Barlen worked on the film in Toronto, with the CGI heavy-lifting handled by Mikros Animation in Montreal. Aside from some voice recording in L.A. and orchestral scoring in Nashville, “95 per cent of everything” happened in Canada, according to Brunker.
“That’s pretty unique for a major studio release like this,” adds the Sheridan College-educated director, who notes that Canadians are more active than ever in the animation market. “Every animation studio that I’ve worked at has a disproportionate share of Canadians. We have great schools here.”
Spin Master and its film industry partners are also betting that the movie will appeal to audiences who have aged out of Paw Patrol (the series’ target demographic rests between two to five years old).
”Kids grow up and move on, but every year, whole new sets of two-year-olds are getting introduced to the Paw Patrol universe,” Dodge says. “The movie gives the audience who has been with it a couple of years something exciting to keep them involved and invested in the characters just a little longer.”
The timing of the release, though, presents a challenge for Spin Master outside the trends and whims of the movie business. Last summer, Paw Patrol found itself at the centre of a social-media storm when the show’s official Twitter account issued a call to “#amplifyblackvoices.” This sparked a wave of jokes, memes and genuine outrage decrying the show’s rosy depiction of law enforcement, particularly its police-pup character Chase. Tweets such as “Euthanize the police dog” and “Defund the Paw Patrol” fluttered around. As a New York Times headline put it: “The protests come for Paw Patrol.”
”You know, the whole Paw Patrol team has always stood for community service, and even in Chase’s role as a police pup, his duties and the things that he performs are about being of service,” Dodge says. “I think that it’s our responsibility to show great role models, and we haven’t shifted from that.”
What Spin Master will shift toward, though, is exploring a sequel, and further big-screen ventures.
“There are definitely plans for more theatrical,” Dodge says. “We haven’t announced anything yet, but we have a robust slate of films in development.”
None of which, your preschooler will be delighted to hear, threaten Paw Patrol’s small-screen future.
”We have plans for several years to come with the series,” Dodge adds, noting that the show just started production on its ninth season. “It will keep going. Paw Patrol is always on a roll.”