It’s hard to hate something that does exactly what it says on the tin. Sure, one can accuse a towel rack of being visually unpleasant. But as long as that rack can keep a towel from taking up floor space, one can’t entirely detest it. And oddly enough, that’s where I’m at with PAW Patrol: The Movie. As someone who did not watch the television series, I needed this movie to do one single thing: make an argument for why the little ones love it so much. Specifically, it had to show cute, plushy dogs saving people in perilous situations. For all that the movie gets wrong, at least it manages to get that right.
In fact, sticking to a formula is what the movie does best. This is a showcase of rescue dogs in action, and that comes from the fact they do it with style. Every single PAW Patrol member has a transforming vehicle, and they are as elaborately crafted as they are useful. For example, there’s a fire truck with a ladder that can stretch to the distance of several multi-story buildings. Furthermore, there’s a helicopter that can turn into a jet whenever it needs more power to fly. Quite honestly, it gets to a point where these transformations are more of a spectacle than anything the dogs do. Still, none of it represents the film betraying its target audience.
Of course, there is a trade-off to relying this much on a formula: anything resembling a surprise withers away. This is first apparent in the narrative that one can lay out in their sleep. Neighboring the PAW Patrol’s home base is Adventure City, where the newly appointed Mayor Humdinger (Ron Pardo) wants to modify it in significant, dangerous ways. So it’s up to PAW Patrol leader Ryder (Will Brisbin) and his team of rescue dogs to stop Humdinger from putting people in peril. Along the way, they come across a dog named Liberty (Marsai Martin), who has an unwavering desire to join the team. And to complicate things further, key member Chase (Iain Armitage) starts to struggle with his duties as his troubled past in Adventure City comes back to haunt him.
That’s a lot of moving parts to cram into a brisk 88-minute runtime. And predictably, the filmmakers have a hard time juggling between them. It’s clear that screenwriters Billy Frolick, Cal Brunker, and Bob Barlen wanted to spice up the typical “let’s stop the bad guy” narrative. But based on these results, all they did was make things worse. Nowhere is this more obvious than in how it treats the Chase subplot. Firstly, this storyline pushes the other PAW Patrol members into the background. As a result, the movie has no chance of being a fun ensemble piece that gives everyone equal treatment. Secondly, the dive into Chase’s struggle is mightily shallow. Brunker, who also directs, does nothing to convey the character’s fear other than to place generic pop songs into the soundtrack.
It says a lot about PAW Patrol: The Movie that one of its most fascinating scenes comes from a lack of attention to detail. In the first major action scene, Ryder and the dogs have to get people out of a burning building. And given that they have a firetruck at their disposal, surely Ryder would make good use of it. But that’s not what happens! Instead, Ryder instructs Chase of all dogs to go to the building. It’s only when Chase falls off the balcony of the burning building that the dog with the firetruck bothers to show up. If this were any sensible writer, this would play out in a different fashion. But since these writers aren’t sensible, the result is a scene so dimwitted that it actually becomes memorable.
I wish the lack of freshness applied to the story and nothing more. But as it turns out, the staleness extends to the gags as well. Sure, it’s nice that most of its running gags aren’t trying to play to the lowest common denominator. In fact, the most memorable running gag – Humdinger’s infinite supply of top hats – is a perfectly adequate example of physical humor. However, having jokes that are in any way hilarious would be nicer, and that’s something PAW Patrol: The Movie refuses to have. More often, the filmmakers are satisfied with crafting dog puns that can’t help but be cringeworthy. And while the top hat gag is decent, the other major running gag – Humdinger’s two henchmen having a fit over who’s the better one – is nothing short of tiresome.
To its credit, the transition from television to film works to the movie’s benefit. I may not have seen a full episode, but I do know that the series did not have elaborate rendering. Meanwhile, the film has as much polish as anything from the heavy-hitter animation studios. Although the character designs remain as soft as ever, the lighting and coloring are much more elaborate. Because of that, there are action sequences with staging appropriate for a feature-length project. And when it doesn’t commit to detailed renders of simple designs, it leans even more into simplicity with 2D animation and eye-popping colors. Granted, this bold style only manifests in the main-on-end sequence, but I’m happy it’s here at all.
On just about every level, PAW Patrol: The Movie achieves the bare minimum. None of the comedy hits hard, but they have just enough effort put into them to read as jokes. Most of the dogs don’t have strong personalities, but they are cute and amusing enough. None of the dramatic moments have a lot of weight, but they make enough narrative sense that it’s hard to eliminate them. Simply put, it is A Movie That Exists™ and one that won’t ruin anyone’s day. At the same time, it’s so passionless that anyone outside the target audience will likely forget about it in a few hours. – Mark Tan
PAW Patrol: The Movie is available in theaters and streaming on Paramount+.
The film stars Iain Armitage, Will Brisbin, Ron Pardo, Marsai Martin, Yara Shahidi, Randall Park, and Dax Shepard.