PAW Patrol’s writer and new star on making a Canadian cultural behemoth

It might not seem like it, but one of the most successful Canadian movie franchises of all time might be better known to your kids than yourself.

PAW Patrol, the animated adventure series geared primarily toward preschoolers and young children, may have gotten its start in this country, but it’s quickly become a dominant force in children’s entertainment around the globe.

And after its first feature, PAW Patrol: The Movie, became Canada’s highest-earning English-language release by a huge margin in 2021, that dominance could be set to increase.

PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie premieres on Friday, setting up the once-crime-fighting pups as superheroes. According to its writer, Bob Barlen, the higher stakes — as well as a touch more grown-up vibe — were intentional and in the works even while still putting together the finishing touches on the first movie.

“We just had the feeling we really wanted to do something bigger and something better and something just more action packed,” the Canadian screenwriter said in an interview with CBC News. “And so we thought, ‘How do we raise the stakes in the first one?’ And a superhero movie seemed like the ultimate way to do that.”

WATCH | PAW Patrol’s Finn Lee-Epp on taking over the role of Ryder: 

PAW Patrol’s new Ryder talks about joining the team

Calgary’s Finn Lee-Epp talks to CBC News about joining PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie, the latest in the franchise.

That balance, Barlen said, can be difficult — PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie was approved in its current form only after it was test-screened for a group of kids to confirm it wasn’t “too intense.”

But even with that in mind, Barlen said that he and Canadian director Cal Brunker are not expressly, or solely, writing for children.

“Ultimately we are the audience that we’re writing for,” he said. “And so if we love it, we hope that other people will, too.”

Having been around for a decade now, beginning as a TV series on Nickelodeon, the franchise has had to update its voices far more than once. One of the newest additions is Ryder — the dogs’ human companion and semi-handler.

This time around, the role is being handled by Alberta-raised animation newcomer Finn Lee-Epp. The 14-year-old, who has never performed voice acting in any capacity, said he still struggles to recognize his newfound fame — concentrated as it is in a certain demographic.

“Up until the point where I was watching the movie, it still didn’t set in for me that I’m Ryder,” Lee-Epp told CBC News.

He described an early experience he had while watching the movie, when a mother and her children realized he was the character they were seeing on the screen and excitedly let him know they were fans.

“The kids were so excited. And that still feels so surreal to me — that people think it’s cool that I’m Ryder, and I don’t even realize I’m Ryder yet.”

Teen revealed role to ‘close circle’ 

Lee-Epp — whose voice changed almost immediately after wrapping production, making it difficult for him to replicate Ryder’s tone now — had to keep the role a secret until the official cast list was announced.

Even then, he only revealed it to a “close circle” of friends — which has led to peers still coming up to him with the surprise discovery of his acting credit.

It has also led to some light ribbing, Lee-Epp said, as the franchise is not exactly pitched toward high-schoolers. But that has mostly been in good fun — with jokes coming back from him as well.

“I mean, I always annoy them with my Ryder voice because it’s funny. They always get so angry when I do it to them,” he said. “And then they tease me back. So it’s pretty fun.”

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