Every mainstream movie is commercial product, of course, and plenty of the less-mainstream ones as well. But it's been a good long bit since I've been left as incapable of ignoring that fact as I am with PAW Patrol: The Movie, a throwback to a simpler time in children's animation when cartoons were not merely designed first and foremost to sell toys, but were not even attempting to hide that fact. PAW Patrol: The Movie even goes so far as to build a joke around the filmmakers and audience's shared knowledge that PAW Patrol toys are the financial basis for PAW Patrol audio-visual media, and not the other way around.

But that's probably jumping ahead too far, too fast if you, like me, know about PAW Patrol only something along the lines of "Dog... cops? I think?" Indeed, now I find that the PAW Patrol represents the entirety of emergency services available to the what-Canadians-think-America-is-like midsize town of Adventure Bay. Aye, there is a cop, in the form of German shepherd puppy Chase (Iain Armitage), but he is only one of six puppies driving large transforming tanks and resolving various crises or providing basic public services: Marshall (Kingsley Marshall) is a Dalmatian firefighter, Rubble (Keegan Hedley) is a bulldog involved in construction and demolition, Zuma (Shayle Simons) is a Lab who does underwater rescue operations, and Rocky (Callum Shoniker) is some breed I do not recognise, whose job appears to be streets and sanitation - he at any rate has a recycling logo on his harness. The sixth one is Skye (Lilly Bartlam), who flies a helicopter and does whatever needs to be done aerially, and is the team's designated girl, which we can tell because her outfit, her vehicle, and her eyeballs are all in coordinating shades of pink, in case you were curious about the level of sophistication at which PAW Patrol operates. The puppies all operate under the direction of Ryder (Will Brisbin), a human ten-year-old who has somehow become the autonomous technocratic dictator of Adventure Bay, not obviously beholden to any authority as he makes the decisions of where to deploy the PAW Patrol, and therefore who shall live and who shall die in this cheerful, smiling, brightly-colored dystopia. What dreadful backstory leads us to this point, how all of the most basic trappings of human civil society collapsed, is left unstated in the film, though perhaps it is addressed in one of the eight extant seasons of the television series.

PAW Patrol: The Movie expands the franchise's universe by moving from the relatively sleepy Adventure Bay to the nearby metropolis of Adventure City, which has recently been taken over by a dicator of its own in the form of Mayor Humdinger (Ron Pardo), a small man in garish purple clothing who is implied to have bribed, extorted, or perhaps even murder ever other claimant to the office, and now plans to remake Adventure City in his own image, along with his army of loathsome cats (PAW Patrol: The Movie is, in addition to its many other crimes, unrelentingly and aggressively anti-cat). Ryder and the puppies have no inkling at all of what he might be attempting to do but they know it cannot possibly be good, and since Ryder's godlike powers allow him to unilaterally make preemptive strikes against anyone he thinks might end up doing nasty things later on, the PAW Patrol heads off to Adventure City to foil Humdinger's schemes. Chase, who has an unstated bad history with the city (and, as the case turns out, it will never really be stated, though it appears that it might involve agoraphobia or acrophobia), objects to this, but Ryder will brook no disagreement.

In Adventure City, the team finds a complete absence of any sort of police force or any obvious governmental infrastructure; possibly Adventure City is an anarchist utopia, which is maybe why it has no system of checks and balances to prevent the newly-installed mayor from saying things like "I believe the subway should be redesigned as a roller coaster" and have this scheme executed in, apparently, the same afternoon.Β  At any rate, Humdinger keeps making things horrible and the PAW Patrol keeps saving people, while Chase confronts his feelings of inadequacy and fear. The other five puppies just kind of putter along in the background, quite unfussed by Billy Frolick and Cal Brunker & Bob Barlen's script; indeed, Zuma and Rocky don't have any function in the story at all and barely any lines, while Marshall and Skye are distinguished mostly by being "the only one with a specific, recognisable job" and "the girl", and Rubble alone emerges as a distinct personality, largely because he is the film's designated comic relief. Instead, much room is made for Liberty the long-haired dachshund (Marsai Martin), a streetwise city dog who idolises the Paw Patrol and is clearly being positioned to join the team at the end, though what in God's name they'll do with two girls is left unexplained. Liberty isn't even signified by the color pink!

Anyway, this is all very stupid. But largely without being annoying about it; the episodic story structure feels like an obvious holdover from the series' origins as television, with nobody involved knowing quite how to assemble 86 minutes of story, so they have taken the very sensible route of not even trying. But that does mean that we only ever have to deal with about eight minutes of stuff at a time, generally in the form of one particular problem to be solved. This also makes PAW Patrol: The Movie a bit manic and sped-up, always racing from this thing to the next thing at top speed, which arguably is a bit annoying, or at least tiring. But then, its whole "thing" is to be as frantic and sugary as possible, the better to dazzle and anesthetize its audience of very small children into soporific delight. I assume that's what's behind's the film's otherwise inexplicably strong critical reception: it's not amusing, it's not heartfelt, and it's not fun, but I imagine it gets children to shut up.

Not being in possession of children myself, I cannot see fit to give it points on that front. And whatever theoretical children I might be thinking of would not kindly dispose me to the film: it's an overt toy commercial in which even the texturing of the vehicles and the dogs makes them seem to have been made out of cheap molded plastic and flocked vinyl, rather than metal and fur-covered skin. The PAW Patrol series managers have been happy to talk about how the expanded budget of the feature means that they could do some actual, proper animation this time, and if this is what "good" animation looks like, I can only imagine how robotic and zombified the animation must be on television. These are not organic beings, they're smooth surfaces with rudimentary paint jobs and uncomfortably shining eyes. But I will admit that at least it's all very bright and boldly-colored, and in the absence of anything good to look at, colorful images are at least better than nothing.

Even setting aside what a lifeless and shrill thing this is, both aesthetically and narratively, there's still something just... pernicious about this. The artlessness with which it announces itself as a brand deposit, here for no reason other than to sell some chintzy gew-gaws to its audience, is grating; the smiling face it slaps upon privatizing everything relating to the successful operation of a city, and trusting a single human controller to be so good at making decisions of what needs to be done that he should be allowed to operate without anything like public oversight is galling. Not that I want to do a big song and dance about how PAW Patrol: The Movie is propaganda, but it unmistakably is. But at least it's all frantic enough to be off-putting.