TORONTO — Few Canadian brands have achieved global domination quite like the puppies of Paw Patrol and after the billion-dollar franchise conquered toy stores and television, it's making a bid for one of the final frontiers of kid's programming — the screens at your local multiplex.
In the years since its 2013 debut, the vibrant cast of computer-animated search and rescue dogs has gripped a generation of children and sent the financial results of toymaker Spin Master sky high, catapulted by parents' pocketbooks.
The arrival of "Paw Patrol: The Movie," which opened last week, is another major flex in the Toronto-based company's aspirations to grow beyond the aisles of retail stores and become a respected Hollywood player.
Six years in the making, with a cast of celebrity voices and a $36 million budget ($26 million after Canadian tax breaks), the Paw Patrol movie is a super-sized effort in every way. But it couldn't have arrived at a more difficult time for the North American box office as the Delta variant wreaks havoc on ticket sales.
In Canada, "Paw Patrol: The Movie" opened exclusively in theatres under distributor Elevation Pictures, a rollout that was met with mixed reactions from parents who've been cautious about returning to the multiplex with their unvaccinated kids.
Outside cinemas, a confusing message fed to social media by its U.S. distributor touted the film as being available to stream on Paramount Plus. It was, but only south of the border, while Elevation has yet to reveal a Canadian date for at-home rentals.
Perhaps turbulence around the Paw Patrol movie would've gone mostly unnoticed if it weren't for the franchise's incredible success. Kids don't just love the series, they're obsessed with it. And by many accounts, parents say their children have been counting the days until the film's release as if it were Christmas morning.
"We want to make sure every child that wants to see the movie has access to the movie," producer Jennifer Dodge said a few days before the streaming confusion erupted.
"It is about the film — and getting the film out in the right way in each territory."
Even if some families decided to sit out its theatrical release, "Paw Patrol: The Movie" pulled in an estimated $1.95 million in ticket sales across Canada on its opening weekend, according to Comscore data provided by Elevation. That added to its total accumulation of US$13 million across North America through Sunday.
While those box-office figures are certainly less than the film would've raked in during non-pandemic times, it's still a significant chunk of coin for a movie that's expected to find a long life in the global market, DVD sales, digital downloads and, of course, in stores, thanks to a line of companion toys and merchandise.
Timing is everything for a brand like Paw Patrol, and Dodge, who's also head of Spin Master’s entertainment division, has been counting on 2021 as the year her company breaks new ground in cinemas.
The executive team has been inching towards making a proper Paw Patrol film for years, dabbling in a number of special programs that extended the TV series' 11-minute episodes into 44-minute shorts, a move that would gauge interest in going even bigger.
"We're still No. 1 and we've been holding this spot for a long time," Dodge said of making the feature-length plunge.
"We felt that we had the awareness, the audience and the brand equity (to) bring this kind of a film to the world."
Production was already rolling on "Paw Patrol: The Movie" when the world went into a COVID-19 lockdown last year, throwing Canadian filmmaker Cal Brunker into uncharted territory.
The director of CGI family films "The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature" and "Escape from Planet Earth" didn't have a playbook for leading a team of 300 artists at Montreal production house Mikros Animation through a pandemic. So he winged it with an emphasis on building camaraderie remotely from his Toronto home office.
"Animated films kind of run on team spirit – that and good snacks," he said.
Recording sessions with comedian Jimmy Kimmel, actor/director Tyler Perry and social media personality Kim Kardashian were all conducted over webcam, which presented its own hurdles as they each navigated new characters in the Paw Patrol universe.
"I always like to be in the room with the actors, because you can build this rapport and play around with things — doing that over Zoom was certainly tricky," Brunker said.
"The actors were fantastic and always very giving, but you lose a little bit of playful collaboration when you're not in the same space. So we just worked things a little bit longer and still got to the same point."
The final product is everything you'd expect from a "Paw Patrol" episode, with a truckload of new bells and whistles, including a soundtrack of catchy tunes from Maroon 5's Adam Levine and Brampton, Ont., pop singer Alessia Cara.
There's also the introduction of Liberty, a girl pup who joins the overwhelmingly male rescue team.
The film also resituates the Paw Patrol team in Adventure City, a sprawling metropolis located a short distance from the TV series' Adventure Bay setting. Alongside their precocious boy leader Ryder, they've been called to stop Mayor Humdinger from unleashing pandemonium on the locals with his grandiose evil plan.
Brunker described the new setting as one intended to appeal to current fans and attract some of the older ones who might've grown out of the franchise.
"We wanted to make sure this was a great family trip to the movies, not just something to put on for your kids," he added.
If the film is a financial success, then expect Spin Master to mine its other franchises — toy brands Bakugan and Hatchimals among them — for other big-screen adaptations.
Dodge won't get into specifics, but she anticipates "a robust development slate of theatrical movies" under the Spin Master name in the years ahead.
Whether one of those is another Paw Patrol film, she's reluctant to say, but if the demand is there, Spin Master seems ready to answer.
"We certainly hope (with) its success that we'll continue to make more," she said.
Follow @dfriend on Twitter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24. 2021.
Companies in this story: (TSX:TOY)
David Friend, The Canadian Press