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The animated movie business is a treacherous one. For every four-star riot like The Mitchells vs. the Machines and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, there are disposable time- and talent-wasters like Scoob! and The Boss Baby: Family Business. (Genuine question: Does anyone but me and Will Forte’s agent remember Scoob!?). The risk is amplified when the film’s source material is a genuine cash cow.
Which is what Paw Patrol happens to be. The eight-year-old Canadian television series, which is both adored and cursed by parents, sometimes in the same breath, is just days away from its make-or-break movie moment, with a big-budget, full-length iteration heading to screens Aug. 20.
Ahead of Paw Patrol: The Movie’s premiere, the Toronto-based team behind the production, director Cal Brunker and co-writer Bob Barlen, spoke with The Globe and Mail about all things Adventure Bay.
How did you guys get absorbed into the Paw Patrol world, having never worked on the show or with producer Spin Master before?
Brunker: I have two kids, one who is 3 and one who is 6, and they’re both into Paw Patrol. When the chance came up to pitch a take to Spin Master, we jumped. Our take wanted to stay true to the younger fans but also create a film that would appeal to a wider audience of kids who have grown out of the show.
How did you adapt the mechanics of the TV show to a feature-film realm?
Brunker: The show by design is repetitive, which works well for younger kids: A person calls the pups for help, the pups say what they’re going to do, the pups show up, they repeat what they’re going to do and then do it. We had to find ways of keeping that familiar, but having it play for older audiences as well. Ten-year-olds can still get invested in this.
Barlen: I don’t have kids, but I do have five nieces and nephews, so I know that this can be both a kids-first movie, but if you’ve grown up on more feature-length animated movies, it’ll hold up, too.
Part of this levelling-up is the animation. The characters are familiar, but the design is richer, there’s more depth to it.
Brunker: Our goal was to make sure that the characters are immediately identifiable. Chase is Chase. But we need to feel at home in the theatrical world. We rebuilt everything. No assets were used from the show. Everything was built to a higher level of detail.
There are a number of celebrity voices here: Jimmy Kimmel, Kim Kardashian. Why get them involved? I don’t think that children know who Dax Shepard is, but maybe they do.
Brunker: Mostly these are people who have kids who were excited to be involved. We kept a lot of voices from the show. But there’s also a level of comedy chops from people who do a lot of movies. It’s also a kick for parents in recognizing voices, and being able to participate that way.
Barlen: Also, bringing in an actor who we wouldn’t have access to on the show helps raise up everyone’s performances.
Compared to your previous work – The Nut Job 2, Escape from Planet Earth – Paw Patrol is another world in terms of valuable intellectual property. How did that kind of corporate responsibility weigh on you?
Brunker: Our partners at Spin Master were with us lockstep for the whole journey. But they were also flexible in terms of supporting us to push out what had been done on the show and create a new experience. There’s certainly an element of pressure, but movies that we did before, they were independent, and the trouble with those is to even inform the public that these movies exist. Paw Patrol doesn’t have that problem. There’s a tailwind to making this movie, knowing there’d be an audience ready to embrace it.
Paw Patrol comes from Spin Master, which started off as a toy company. There’s a cynical view that this only exists to move toys. How do you treat your job as a storyteller, not a toy-seller?
Brunker: Look at all sorts of other movies that fall into the same category, like Star Wars or Marvel. We always approached it from the “Wouldn’t it be cool if...?” angle. We were part of the toy design from the beginning, which was happening alongside story meetings. For example, the pups’ tower has a giant ramp because we were pitching sequences that had that. [Spin Master] wasn’t planning on making a ramp until we explained it. We always felt it was story-driven. It didn’t feel to us ever like the cart driving the horse.
When you were making the film, there was a cultural debate about the role of police, and how that role is portrayed in children’s entertainment, with Paw Patrol the series becoming a focal point. How do you feel Chase, the “police pup,” and law enforcement in general, is presented here?
Brunker: That’s not something we got caught up in at all. Chase is the main character here because he’s the most popular character from the show. We thought that if we could take a character on an emotional journey, he’s the obvious choice. Broadly speaking, Paw Patrol is about first responders, whether that’s fire or police or whatever the group.
Barlen: The inherent goodness of the characters comes through, and even on the show, it’s that positive message delivered in a non-cynical, positive, open-hearted way.
Brunker: These characters do the right thing, and that’s what we should aspire to.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Paw Patrol: The Movie opens Aug. 20 in Canadian theatres.