The “Paw Patrol” television series is designed with a single-minded focus to (1) get kids to identify with the characters and (2) get parents to buy toys, t-shirts, books, hoodies, underwear, toothbrushes, birthday party decorations, watches, and so many more toys. It is exceptionally skillful at building enough tension before a reassuring laugh or satisfying save. And like Smurfs or Disney’s Seven Dwarfs, the pups have just enough one-attribute personalities (clumsy, hungry, etc.) to be easy to connect to and to generate a catchphrase kids can anticipate. The stories are empowering, with the young characters saving the day with their courage and mastery of cool technology. There are some nice lessons about confidence and teamwork, a more-funny-than-scary villain, and impressive guest stars voicing minor characters, including Kristen Bell, James Marsden, Lil Rel Howery, and Kim Kardashian (as a pampered poodle social media star) and her children. But when I smiled, it was more often remembering the Oscar Isaac sketch about Paw Patrol on “Saturday Night Live” than about what was on screen.
In the world of “Paw Patrol,” a collection of assorted Justice League-style puppies led by a 10-year-old boy named Ryder (newcomer Finn Lee-Epp) perform every possible rescue needed in Adventure City by air, land, and water. They are the Police Department, the Fire Department, and the Coast Guard. Kids can identify with Ryder because he’s a child, but they can also imagine themselves in his role as a kind of patient, benevolent parent. He’s independent (we never see Ryder’s family), supremely capable (masterminds technology the Pentagon would envy), and ever-encouraging but always prioritizes the pups’ safety. And he constantly reminds them of the importance of teamwork.
The lovely young actress Mckenna Grace voices Skye, who takes center stage here as Chase did in the first film (then voiced by Iain Armitage, now by Christian Convery). Skye is brave, resilient, dedicated, and supremely capable like the other pups. But she is still struggling with feelings of inadequacy going back to her earliest days as the runt of a litter, the only one who was not adopted. Left behind, she ran away to follow Ryder but got stuck in the snow. He rescued her and made her part of the group. It bothers her that the other pups are growing bigger, but she is not.
Taraji P. Henson is a delight as this film’s villain, Victoria Vance, with a delicious evil laugh. Victoria keeps insisting she is not a mad scientist, but as we see her using magnetism to pull meteors out of orbit, that’s what she is. Those meteors have a mysterious power source that will become central to the storyline. Fans of frequent Paw Patrol nemesis, former mayor and cat-lover Humdinger (Ron Pardo), will be glad to see him turn up as Victoria’s cell-mate, who helps her escape from jail.
The Paw Patrol pups can do almost anything with their planes, boats, vehicles, and command center, letting them see into every part of Adventure City. It’s so extensive that it magically re-appears after the headquarters is destroyed. But maybe after more than 200 episodes and another feature film, they need some new ideas. So, let’s give them all superpowers! One of the mysterious meteors has crystals inside, conveniently one for each pup. The crystals amplify each one’s special abilities, which should provoke worthwhile family conversations. It is also more intense than the earlier G-rated film, earning a PG for some peril and “cartoon violence.” No one gets hurt, but there’s a lot of smashed property.
From the start, a character makes it clear: “They’re cute little puppies who drive around in cars. I know that sounds weird, but just go with it.” Does this need to be a feature film? No. Will parents enjoy it? Only if they nap through everything but the guest star voices and passing popcorn to their happy children. Is going to see this movie literally buying into a delivery system for consumer hegemony? Sure. Is it a worthwhile transition object to get children used to the thrill of seeing stories they love on a giant screen in a dark room? Of course, it is.
NOTE: The film is preceded by a short featuring Dora the Explorer about saving the egg of a fantasy creature.