I recently took my 4-year-old to see Paw Patrol: The Movie.
He’s a big fan of the TV show, and as the youngest of my three kiddos, little Beck tends to get less of Dad’s time and attention than his older siblings. It was our first “just-the-two-of-us” movie; so I grabbed us a couple blue slushies and a small mountain of buttered popcorn to watch this movie about a boy named Ryder who leads a crew of heroic “search and rescue” puppies in a land named Adventure Bay.
I wasn’t exactly excited to see the movie, to be honest. To my surprise, however, Paw Patrol is a pretty good flick, and I couldn’t help but notice the story has a not inconspicuous message that tells an important and timeless economic lesson.
Mayor Humdinger: A Recognizable Villain
People who’ve seen the Paw Patrol TV show likely know about Mayor Humdinger—a selfish, grasping politician always seeking to use his position as mayor of Foggy Bottom to his own advantage.
Humdinger is no different in the movie. As Mayor of Adventure City—a notable contrast to Adventure Bay—Humdinger quickly turns the metropolis into chaos by using his authority to fuel his own ego and nefarious plans. Unlike Adventure Bay, a small community where people trade and help each other through trade and voluntary action, Adventure City is run in a very top-down fashion, with Humdinger ordering people around to suit his own purposes.
Early in the film, we learn he’s capturing “stray” dogs and holding them in a secret shelter. (In reality, Humdinger is really just a cat person.) Worse, Humdinger—tired of the rainy weather in Adventure City—decides to improve the city by getting rid of the pesky clouds that make things so dreary. (It just so happens, the clouds also threaten the fireworks celebration Humdinger is throwing to celebrate … himself.)
“I hear you have a weather machine that sucks up clouds. Is that true?” Humdinger asks the scientist who runs the machine at a university.
“You’re looking at it!” she replies. “It’s a free-floating gyroscopically balanced remote controlled weather containment and analysis apparatus … We call it the cloud catcher.”
Humdinger clearly has no idea how the machine works, but he sees he can use it to solve his weather problem—despite the scientist’s warning that it's a device for studying weather, not manipulating weather.
“I want all of those pesky clouds sucked up by the end of the day,” Humdinger blares.
The scientist reluctantly agrees to use the machine to suck out the rain clouds "just for tonight" when Humdinger threatens to shut down the project if she doesn’t comply with his order. The machine isn't turned off after it's set in motion—another lesson—setting the stage for a cataclysmic weather event later in the movie.
Fortunately for Humdinger and the people of Adventure City, there is a private team of rescue puppies led by a little boy who is able to help. With the assistance of a homeless puppy—named Liberty—the Paw Patrol is able to clean up Humdinger’s mess.
Reading Too Much Into Paw Patrol?
There are twists and turns along the way, of course. Chase—a German Shepherd pup who serves as a police dog—loses confidence in himself and ends up in the pound after he’s nabbed by a couple of Humdinger’s goons. Ryder has a fallout with Chase. The pups put out a few fires (literally and figuratively) and rescue Chase. Liberty, the newcomer, gets her own wheels.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the overall plot seemed like a shining, Hayekian example of central planning gone wrong. In his hubris, Humdinger tries to do one thing—make the weather better—and ends up doing something very different: causing an environmental disaster.
Also, I noticed there’s a lesson in public choice theory. Even children will see that Humdinger isn’t acting out of some “common good” to improve Adventure City. He’s mostly interested in having nice weather so it doesn’t ruin his celebration. Was there ever a better example of “politics without romance,” to borrow a phrase from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, the pioneer of public choice theory?
Of course, I also couldn't help but wonder: am I reading too much into this?
Paw Patrol is a children’s movie, after all. Are the show’s writers—intentionally or subconsciously—truly exploring these ideas in their film? Or am I just imagining this? (I’m self aware enough to know I write for an economics organization, and humans have a knack of projecting their own insights and experiences onto art and human affairs, much like the subject staring at the inkblots of a Rorschach test.)
Naturally, I decided to put my theory to the test: I started Googling.
It didn’t take long to find that others have had the sneaking suspicion that Paw Patrol has (dangerous) pro-freedom messages woven into its stories. One Reddit post describes Paw Patrol as “a Libertarian conspiracy” (perhaps tongue in cheek, it’s hard to tell these days).
An article on Fatherly, meanwhile, blasts “the rotten political core of PAW Patrol” with a disapproving gusto that is both impressive and bizarre.
“Who is Ryder? At first glance, he’s a child without a history, an inventor and engineering genius,” writes Patrick A. Coleman. “Ruled by logic and reason, deeply individualistic, and uninterested in the opinions of the townspeople that ‘Yelp for Help,’ Ryder controls his pack of working dogs and the town of Adventure Bay.”
Catch that? Ryder is a suspicious character because he’s logical, deeply individualistic, and employs reason. But wait. It gets better.
“[Ryder] is, in short, a 10-year-old libertarian autocrat — the sort of boy Ayn Rand would have tried to raise if she’d been interested in that sort of thing,” Coleman continues.
And then, the crescendo.
“On the surface, PAW Patrol is exactly as advertised, a lightly grating, exuberant half-hour of cute animals, meant to teach kids how to solve problems through teamwork. But look deeper and it’s a weird show about a weird, pastel town where Ryder is never questioned or pushed to account for himself. The fact that none of the residents ever talk about how he and his pack of pups rose to their prominent position in the town reeks of censorship or some deeply buried shame they’ve allowed themselves to be under a child’s thumb. So it would seem that on a daily basis, to a catchy ska-lite theme song, Ryder and his pups act out an anarcho-capitalist pageant. …
The boy is impressive, and not simply due to his impeccable style and gelled-up black bouffant. He surpasses Rand’s [John] Gault, who went through University at 16 and invented an improbable engine. Ryder’s command of technology and engineering prowess is undeniable. The proof is everywhere your eyes might rest. …
But a dark question looms over Adventure Bay. What would happen if Ryder suddenly tired of the town’s seemingly endless, petty chaos? ... What would happen if Ryder shrugged? …
Maybe the ultimate danger of Ryder is that he’s duped the citizens of Adventure Bay into giving up their agency and America’s children into believing that exceptional people should be allowed exceptional power. And frankly, they shouldn’t.
After reading that description, I came home with an important lesson: don’t analyze cartoons too much. It leads to dark places.
So is Paw Patrol the most libertarian movie since Disney rolled out Robin Hood, the 1973 classic that depicted the wonderfully evil Prince John (Peter Ustinov) punitively raising taxes to “squeeze every last drop out of those insolent musical peasants" in Nottingham?
Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. My advice: take the kids, get some popcorn, and don’t worry too much about it. Just enjoy the movie.