The last film I saw in theaters was Annihilation. My wife was nine months pregnant with our son, and had Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout. In the loudness of Annihilation’s climax, our usually sedate, not-yet-born baby boy was kicking and twisting, buffeted by the shimmering waves of noise. I can only imagine how it sounded to him. I wonder if he was scared.
And then 3 ½ years went by and I didn’t see a single movie in theaters. Parenting makes a lot of things difficult, and one of those things is going to the movies—by the time the pandemic hit and movie theaters closed, I didn’t even miss it. In the infancy of my parenting career, I found it so difficult to pursue my fledgling side-hustles—being a film writer (or a writer of any kind—even reading became insurmountable), dabbling in acting, comedy, and podcasting, and generally pursuing a life outside of the mid-sized town I grew up in—that I wrote a rather stern “break-up letter” to my hobbies. I told myself I would never make a living by writing. I would never break through. I was not as talented as my peers. I should take my constant discouragement as a sign and quit. I would be happier if I gave up. And I listened to myself, and I did quit, and it is not yet clear if I’m any happier.
Our son watches more television than we’d planned; one of the many side effects of living in pandemic times. We’ve watched My Neighbor Totoro together a few times, but he prefers shorter, episodic fare. My hobby portfolio includes two false starts at writing and recently finishing the reading of a novel that I started 18 months ago (if you’re one of those people who posts their book count on Instagram, just know that I see you and I am proud of you and I do not forgive you). It’s taken three weeks to write these three paragraphs, and only the looming threat of a deadline is getting words on the page.
But what I have done is watched hundreds of hours of children’s entertainment. Coming from a media background in criticism and textual analysis, children’s entertainment drove me insane. I hated the formulaic, repetitive, ear-wormy nature down to my core. The anger I felt in my whole body when I caught myself absentmindedly singing “Fruit salad…yummy yummy” was liquid hot. My ever-patient wife will attest to the number of times I would mutter “ridiculous” while we watched episodes of Dora the Explorer1. (I just checked with her, and she confirmed that it was, “Oh, a BUNCH.”) I am not proud of how annoyed I was, and I wasn’t necessarily annoyed because of the shows. New parenthood for me was simply a time of total emotional dysregulation.
But one day, something cracked open. Maybe the shows wore me down, or maybe I just got tired of being angry all the time. Maybe it’s that everything that isn’t obviously fictional is triggering these days. I don’t know what happened, but I got invested. I started researching the people behind the shows. I dove deep into the history of the primary-hued Australian mega-sensation, The Wiggles (fascinating, replete with human drama, would read the book). I found out that the guy who made those creepy, early 2000s “Salad Fingers” flash animations now makes genuine children’s cartoons on YouTube. Eventually, I found myself engrossed in the characters, storylines, and indeed the physics2 of Paw Patrol, the ubiquitous canine-centric cartoon series which follows the adventures of 10-year-old Ryder and his team of rescue pups (namely, Marshall! Rubble! Chase! Rocky! Zuma! Skye! Yeah! They’re on the way!). Paw Patrol is rated “Y7” in Canada, and is nominally intended for children of preschool age, carrying a parental warning for “depictions of fear.”
There is every reason to be suspicious of Paw Patrol. It exists by design at that intersection between addictive TV show and aggressively marketed toy tie-ins. It was praised by Andrew Scheer—then-leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and chronic man-unable-to-read-the-room—for “promoting capitalism.” Chase, the German Shepherd police pup who serves as the show’s central hero, exists at the troubling nexus of “ACAB3” and “ADAGB.”4 Would this simple cartoon push my son to buy into all of the harmful, deeply entrenched problems of our society? I don’t know, it’s a cartoon. But my kid loves Paw Patrol, and I love my kid. It sounds flip to put it that way, but the simplicity of the situation mirrors its truth. I love my kid, and this show makes him happy.
Backpack. Snacks. Water. Sound-canceling, over-the-ear headphones. “Spy Chase” action figure. Masks. Hand Sanitizer. Different packages of wipes with cleansers of varying strengths. Paw Patrol: The Movie was playing at our local movie theater, which had been closed for over a calendar year, and we were prepared. This would be my son’s first time seeing a movie on the big screen. We toured the arcade and the snack bar, looked at the lobby displays, and bought a bag of popcorn. “You know what’s special about this building?” he said. “The carpet.” The carpet was indeed special, a bold pattern of gold and white stars and planets on a rich, swirling, black, royal blue, and purple background. The carpets in movie theaters are very special; you won’t find them anywhere else.
We found our seats, explained for the fifth preemptive time that the movie would be loud, that he could sit with us if he wanted to, that it would be ok for him to ask us questions, but that we shouldn’t be too loud and bother the other people who were watching the movie. He was too small to weigh down the spring-loaded seat, so I spent the running time holding it down so he wouldn’t be swallowed up by his chair. We ate popcorn (he didn’t like it), he sat on my lap for a few minutes, held his mom’s hand, and when another kid in the theater let out one of those loud, forceful laughs-that-serves-to-let-other-people-know-they-found-something-funny, he said loudly enough for the room to hear, “Hmm, it sounds like a baby is trying to laugh, but really, they’re just crying.” It was a lot of fun.
The movie itself was pretty good!5 Funny, well-animated, a strong voice that didn’t try to be all things to all people, good action scenes, and an unexpected emotional core. The story centers around Ryder and the pups travelling from their home in Adventure Bay to nearby Adventure City to thwart the plans of long-time rival Mayor Humdinger, who has just cheated his way into the metropolis’ mayor’s office.6 The pups are psyched to explore their new base and test out their new vehicles (winkingly remarking that Ryder could afford all this hardware because of “officially licensed merchandise”). Chase (voiced by Iain Armitage of Young Sheldon fame), however, is less keen.
You see, in this children’s movie, Chase—a cartoon puppy—is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was abandoned in the middle of an intersection and nearly hit by a car before Ryder, who just happened to be walking by, took him in. Chase is consistently triggered throughout the movie, losing his nerve to save people in danger, cowering against the sides of buildings while the other pups put out fires and save civilians. When Ryder suggests that Chase take some time off because he can’t handle the stress, Chase—a cartoon puppy—looks him in the eye and says “You said everything would be fine! But it’s not! What kind of leader gives up on someone the second things get hard?” Paw Patrol out here asking the tough questions.
Roger Ebert once panned Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, another highly-merchandised kid’s movie tie-in, for being essentially a missed opportunity. He notes that the film was a disservice to children, that it did what it could to “deaden” their fresh and inquisitive natures. This was chief amongst my fears for Paw Patrol: The Movie, but despite a handful of new vehicles-cum-playsets and that one cheeky fourth-wall-break, the film isn’t terribly blatant in its product tie-ins. In fact, I found it quite subdued. There are several thoughtfully executed moments where the characters discuss fear and bravery. And while there’s the typical “Heroes are brave, that’s what makes them heroes” message, the film also takes time to explore the idea that it’s ok to be scared. That everyone gets scared. Fear is a normal and natural human/canine response to reliving trauma. I don’t know how much of the PTSD narrative my 3-year-old picked up on, but he is in a phase where he is exploring risk-taking, and in the days since we saw the film, he has given himself courage by saying, “It’s ok to be scared. Chase was scared.”
“I get scared too, sometimes.” I tell him. “It’s normal to be scared. Let’s take a deep breath and try again.”
Maybe it’s naïve to think that a simple message in a children’s movie can transcend the capitalist machine that produced it, but I need to hold onto the ideal that art and entertainment can have beautiful lessons, even if someone somewhere is profiting. Give me that sweet, sweet world where I don’t have to suspect everyone’s motives. My wife and I are about to have a baby daughter for christ’s sake, I already have to help her find her way in all [gestures at ravenously capitalistic patriarchy] this.
When my son was born, I was scared in ways I didn’t understand. That fear manifested in frustration at the ways my life was changing. I couldn’t engage in any of the activities that had previously given my life meaning and direction and I blamed my son. I was angry, and I lost my temper often. I yelled. I yelled at him once while we were in the car because he asked me why we were going to the park and not the store. I yelled until his small voice from the back seat said “Ok daddy. I’m sorry, daddy.” He was 2. I went to therapy. I talked with my therapist about how even children with the best-intentioned parents have a moment of non-recovery, a wellspring of complex issues that shapes and informs the landscape of a life like a river carves through a valley. We talked about how the way you speak to a child becomes their inner voice. Had I given my son his moment of non-recovery at just 2 years old? Would he hear my shouting in his head for the rest of his life?
I’ve been working since then on repairing that broken moment, on recognizing what triggers my “big” emotions and how to navigate through them. My son and I talk often about our “big” feelings, and he’s getting very good at identifying the nuances of his reactions to the world around him. I’m certain he will inherit a whole other set of issues from me, and I’m doing my best to live with that, forgive myself, repair, and hope. Parenting is a lifelong process of letting go and praying your kids will rise above you. I can’t unhear his small voice on that terrible day that I lost my temper with him in the car. But I also can’t unhear him saying “It’s okay to be scared. Chase was scared. Daddy gets scared too.”
And then he takes a deep breath, and he tries again.
- To be fair, the dramatic stakes of Dora the Explorer are all over the place. In one episode, Dora plans a surprise party for Boots. In the next, she must return an ancient idol to an active volcano or the people of the village will surely perish. Next episode? “We’ve got to return this libro to the biblioteca!”
- In the early days of the pandemic, when we were all desperate for human connection, my friends and I started an evening of “expert lectures,” in which we all gathered on Zoom to give 10-15 minute presentations on things in which we were experts (sound engineering, financial advice, migratory patterns of Canadian birds, how to make the most of your local library, etc). My presentation was titled “The Function of Time in Adventure Bay: Using High-School Math to Explain the Interplay of Gravity and Time in the Setting of the Children’s Television Program Paw Patrol.” The presentation hypothesized that time functioned at an accelerated rate in Adventure Bay, given that Ryder was able to teach six dogs to speak fluent English in short order, as well as dismantle the entire emergency services infrastructure of an entire town and replace it with a multi-faceted system of all-dog response units. They could also travel to completely different ecosystems in a matter of minutes. To determine exactly the rate of acceleration that time was undergoing, we examined a scene in which a baby owl (Little Hootie, for you real fans) fell from a tree. While falling, the other characters were able to hold an entire conversation, deploy a safety net, and still catch the owl before it hit the ground. Assuming a gravitational constant (and that Adventure Bay exists on, if not Earth, then an Earth-like planet), the baby owl should have hit the ground after 0.8078 seconds, but the scene plays out over 8.77 seconds. Cross-calculating those values (and I wouldn’t bother to double-check the math if I were you, it’s perfect and flawless) leads us to the conclusion that time flows at a rate of 7.08x that of our own. With time moving at a ratio of 1:7, it’s appropriate to say that time in Adventure Bay functions in…dog years.
- All Cops Are, uh, Bad. This is a kids’ show, after all.
- All Dogs Are Good Boys.
- Despite carrying on the TV show’s pattern of treating Zuma, the water pup, with an utterly disgusting lack of respect. Forty-five minutes passed between Zuma’s first and second lines of dialogue, and during the big action climax, they (Zuma is a non-binary icon, change my mind) were relegated to the preposterous task of rescuing a car that fell into an underground river. For contrast, one of the other pups flew a helicopter into a raging storm and literally exploded a hurricane. #JusticeForZuma
- It’s tempting to overlay a political critique onto the film’s treatment of Mayor Humdinger; a cheating, lying, science-ignoring, grudge-holding, authoritarian politician who lives in a giant tower, Humdinger would be an obvious Trump avatar, if he hadn’t had that characterization since the show’s debut in 2013.