Like SpongeBob in the Y2K days or the Ninja Turtle revitalization of the 2010s – the latter made cooler in the wake of Mutant Mayhem, there’s simply no denying the sticking power of Nickelodeon’s prime franchises. The puppy-powered heroics of the Paw Patrol have proven no different from what’s come before. In the 10 years since this kid-friendly display of emergency heroics began on TV, it’s spawned toys upon toys, live shows, a spinoff series, a misappropriated excuse for controversy, and a growing cinematic universe. Tech wiz Ryder (Finn Lee-Epp) and his squad of confident doggos, each representing a different service discipline, had already left an impression on young moviegoers in 2021, making a sleeper hit out of their first big city escapade. Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie sees everyone figuratively singing the same theme song, albeit with improved stakes against the hobbles of a worn-out plot device.
What starts this all-but-inevitable sequel is nothing new: the familiar beauty of meteors either grazing or crashing into Earth, and then harvested of their resources. The Bad Guys and Monsters vs. Aliens both tried this thread and had much cleverer luck, but The Mighty Movie still puts in the effort to distance itself. With the help of a better-developed villain, the trope-laden astrologist turned mad scientist Victoria Vance (a decadently wicked Taraji P. Henson), they’re part way there. While the residents of Adventure City ooh and awe at the sight of a passing meteor shower lighting their skies, she carries an extreme motive to steal a few and harness its energy, by way of magnets.
An early scrape between Vance and the patrollers – above-ground monitor Skye (McKenna Grace), firefighter Marshall (Christian Corrao), beat cop Chase (Christian Convery), construction expert Rubble (Luxton Handspiker), handyman Rocky (Callum Shoniker), street smart city guide Liberty (Marsai Martin) and water rescuer Zuma (Nylan Parthipan) complicates matters, and it turns very personal on both sides. For the baddie who’s placed in jail, she immediately enacts revenge, teaming with the equally incarcerated Mayor Humdinger in a Venture Bros. level degree of absurdist villain/cohort hijinks. For the pups who hold onto a sample of the space rock for research purposes, their fortunes change once exposed to its concentrated energy, the group finding themselves with superhero abilities fitting their job descriptions, making them all targets, and leaving Skye in a familiar advantage.
Much like Chase in the first film battling confidence issues against a traumatic situation, here it’s Skye’s spotlight moment. Her merit and worth are assessed to the nth degree when fighting her insecurities as the smallest of the group, the smallest in her litter growing up. A challenge for her resolve, seeking and affirming her niche under these rearranged dynamics. Something Grace tackles with a warm, assuring pluck in her performance, and that her castmates are quick to capitalize on, with mixed results. Each of the other pups, notably Convery’s spin on Chase, allows for their unique moments for both comedy and common sense, momentarily taking a mature foot forward on the latter. Even when it’s a straight comedy to keep efforts grounded, like Liberty’s attempts to train the newly recruited Junior Patrollers (a trio of Pomeranian interns) – and Martin owns those scenes with unchallenged gusto, there’s weight to the situation. Enough, at least, to take a gentle step beyond episodic limitations.
Director Cal Brunker (The Nut Job 2), sharing script credit with Shane Morris (Frozen) and Bob Barlen (Arctic Dogs) once more finds himself in a captive position to do just that, expanding the scope, bravery, and compassion of this franchise. Whereas the first go-around was weighed down by questionable sight gags matching an exceedingly cartoonish angle to city planning – and yes, there can be such a thing, this follow-up takes a more subdued, grounded approach to everyday heroics. The work still appears playful, corny, and even a trifle flashy while keeping the youngsters engaged.
The difference here is there’s a modest increase in thematic focus, character development, auditory ingenuity via Pinar Toprak’s (The Lost City) rousing score, and a sticking visual structure. For a film of this scale, and more so this time, landscapes and set pieces honestly carry the feel and detail of the playsets destined for store shelves in its wake. But then consider how tidy, yet dense this 90-something minute tale is, and it’s a little easier to forget the merch angle. At least until the tykes start clamoring for a beachside HQ scale replica, then it’s selling something.
I was impressed how in such a quick span, the pace never grinds to a crawl, nor does anything disengage. Not much time for either, so it all occurs by default, with a mild flair. Outside of the initial formulaicness, the only rotten egg is Humdinger’s return, his partnering with Vance tedious and annoying. But Henson makes quick work to outstrip her counterpart’s intentions, frequently stealing the rug at every turn. I was surprised at the same time, despite some rough Illumination-esque gag work, by how adventurous this sequel was willing to go, without sacrificing any creative leeway, or completely risking viewer alienation. Against a standard 11-minute story, the rhythm here is similar, albeit methodical, and not overly repetitive. Brunker takes a few welcome swings to raise the energy or melancholy in each scene, often predictably. And yet, the risk is rewarded with newfound depth, to the point where it’s all perplexing.
The bar has been lowered as of late for superhero flicks to create a determinable impact, let alone those created as popcorn entertainment for younger, highly imaginative families. That’s the target crowd for Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie, a ready group who have yet to recognize burnout by below-average fare with comic book characters, and who can overlook that faint strain of generic storytelling. Parents might roll their eyes here and there, but this sequel does plenty for plot and visual strengths, to avoid them losing their minds. All while the series’ younger fans take an immediate shine to its sense of adventure, outweighing its predecessor’s idea of misadventure. It’s neither a cinematic revelation nor a rescue for the aforementioned, retool-desperate subgenre. But as an autumnal crowd-pleaser, it meets the need, staying in line with a venerable franchise that now, in its second decade, suddenly feels free to shake things up, within reason. (C; 3/5)
Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie, preceded by the odd yet inventive short Dora and the Fantastical Creatures, opens in theaters September 29; rated PG for mild action/peril; 92 minutes.