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Aug 8

Watch With Father: PJ Masks

Posted on Tuesday, August 8, 2017 by Paul in Watch With Father

Not all of Disney’s superheroes are in the Marvel Universe.  Meet the PJ Masks, six-year-old protectors of the Disney Junior channel.  When night falls, Connor, Amaya and Greg become Catboy, Owlette and Gecko, and they fight villains.  Specifically, night-time villains.

Let’s be clear: this is not Power Pack, Marvel’s 1980s series about a pre-pubescent sibling superhero team.   Power Pack‘s target audience was older than the characters, especially Katie.  But PJ Masks is on Disney Junior, so if anything, its six-year-old heroes are slightly older than the intended audience.

Instead, this is an entry-level superhero show, played out with primary school kids.  The tropes are present and correct – the dual identities, the costumes, the powers, the villains.  The villains are aged six too, but they’re still villains.  There’s a comedy streak to the whole thing, and occasionally it even tips over into Looney Tunes territory – and the dramatic soundtrack has its tongue firmly in its cheek.  But at heart, this is still a superhero show, rather than a parody.

How did they get their powers?  Why do they only work at night?  Where did that bloody great HQ tower in the park come from?  Why does it look like a giant totem pole?  How did they get all the cool equipment inside?  Who looks after it all?  PJ Masks is supremely unconcerned by any of these questions (aside from a vague hint that their powers are something to do with their pyjamas and/or a bracelet).  This is a common device in kids TV, the Implied Back Story.  Anything that you wouldn’t need to explain in episode 27, because viewers would just assume it must have been covered somewhere else, really doesn’t need explaining at all.  So don’t explain it.  Who knows, maybe one day you’ll have to write a movie, and then you’ll be glad you never touched any of this stuff.

As usual, there’s a clear formula at work.  After the opening credits (see above), there’s an intro sequence where the kids discover something that’s clearly the work of a night-time villain, to be investigated that night.  It tends to involve something going missing or getting broken or whatever; often it’s absurdly trivial.  Then we get what amounts to an entire second credits sequence, in which everyone transforms at nightfall and is somehow or other transported to HQ.

As a rule – and it gets a bit more flexible from this point – they then pick one of their three vehicles (available at a debatably reasonable price from a toy store near you) and set out to find the baddie.  One of them (or sometimes two) will screw up or otherwise be preoccupied with something that was also set up in the framing sequence, and the villain will get the upper hand.  But then, at the turning point, the episode’s designated bozo will realise their mistake, learn their lesson, declare that “it’s time to be a hero”, and the team will get their act together for the win.  The villains invariably escape, and in fact the PJ Masks seem to have no interest in actually capturing them, as opposed to thwarting their plan – perhaps because with a rotating cast of only three villains, you can’t actually put them away, and if the heroes aren’t trying, they aren’t failing.  The PJ Masks shout their catchphrase – “PJ Masks all shout hooray / Cos in the night, we saved the day!” – and a daytime coda rounds off the episode.

It’s better than this makes it sound.  The characters have well defined roles, with Gecko as the deferential junior member who wants to prove himself, Catboy as the proto alpha male with show-off tendencies, and Owlette as the level-headed one who doesn’t like looking silly.  All three are obsessed with grown-up heroes (fictional ones) with utterly different powers, who they sometimes try to imitate in battle, with inevitably disastrous results.  And since the formula requires them all to take turns being the bozo – often making them defensive about something or other – they wind up being fairly well rounded after you’ve seen a few episodes.

For modern kids’ TV, it’s an unusually moralistic show.  By that, I don’t mean that it’s especially preachy – rather, that the show places the lesson-learning front and centre.  The actual lessons tend towards things like “Owlette needs to admit that she doesn’t understand the new move that the boys have come up with, instead of trying to bluff her way through”, or “Catboy and Gecko need to stop playing Master Fang when they’re supposed to be fighting villains”.  Or “for god’s sake, Catboy, shut up and listen to the other two”.  Variations on “don’t try to do everything yourself to prove some sort of point when you’ve got two perfectly serviceable teammates standing right there” crop up quite frequently.  The superhero genre lends itself to the traditional moral lesson, since it’s all about characters rising to the occasion.

There’s normally a single villain, though some team-up episodes exist.  The first season relies entirely on three villains: Romeo is a miniature mad scientist with fairly conventional villain goals; Luna Girl is a kleptomaniac with a flock of loyal moths; and Night Ninja is a ninja in a starfield costume who throws “sticky splat” instead of shuriken, because this is Disney Junior.  He’s accompanied everywhere by a group of miniature Night Ninjas called Ninjalinos who do all the work for him, and his plans are inevitably about self-glorification.  Basically, Romeo wants to take over the world, Luna Girl wants to steal shiny things, and Night Ninja wants everyone to tell him how awesome he is.  Night Ninja is plainly the best.  Even by the standards of the show, his schemes are majestically pointless.  In one episode he steals Gecko’s birthday cake in order to use it at his own party, and then forces the PJ Masks and the Ninjalinos to play pass the parcel to get it back.

Plot logic is usually focussed on the lesson of the day; PJ Masks is not much concerned about wider logic points.  A lot of stories hinge on the villain stealing some fairly mundane item from the heroes’ primary school, and the heroes foiling the villain by getting it back – even when it’s something like a whistle or some sport equipment or a storybook.  The fact that the heroes only get powers at night time could be used as a plot point, in theory, but it never is – no matter what the problem, it will always wait for nightfall.

This limited cast – most episodes rely on four characters from a pool of six – is striking.  A handful of other characters show up in the daytime framing sequences, but those bits aren’t very long, so they don’t get much screen time.  The one time a daytime character does show up in the main body of an episode, he remains asleep throughout.  Nobody else is ever around at night.  Nobody is ever woken up.  There is no police force.  There are no bystanders.  There’s a limited number of settings, all in the same town – a museum turns up rather frequently.  Of course, this is excellent news for the animation budget, but in this case it also feels like a deliberate choice, not to let the outside world intrude.

PJ Masks is night time as envisaged by a four year old.  Everyone is asleep, therefore nobody is around.  The city is a playground.  You get to drive cars.  The repeated use of macguffins which could easily be bought from a shop, but which are treated as rare items only obtainable by robbing a single primary school, feels less like sloppy writing, and more like a conscious reflection of the world view of a small child, where their school is the centre of the universe.  There is method in the madness, a dream logic to the whole thing.

While the scripts treat the setting as a generic town, it doesn’t look like one.  It’s more European than American – it’s low-rise; the buildings are old and at weird random angles; there’s a prominent canal.  And in fact, PJ Masks is an adaptation of a series of French picture books, Les Pyjamasques.  That pun, you’ll notice, works a lot better in French than PJ Masks does in English.  It could have been called Pyjamasks, but Disney are paying for this, and they’re American, so PJ Masks it is.  It’s still a French co-production, and it looks it.  (Oddly, the books don’t seem to be available in English, despite the success of the show.)  This style of city lends itself much better to serving as a backdrop for the PJ Masks.  Something more modern would feel weirdly deserted, but this place feels appropriately empty.  It’s a dreamworld more than a real location, where things can play out unnoticed by the daytime folk, even the ones who logically ought to be living in all those houses.

PJ Masks is not always subtle – even the production team felt compelled to include one episode where the camera pans away from the explaining-the-moral bit to show Luna Girl rolling her eyes.  And some of the plots are slight even allowing for the format – did season one really need two different stories in which villains try to be pop stars?  But it’s got a clear sense of place, and after a few episodes its minimal closed world starts to make sense.  It’s a curious little gateway to the superhero genre.

Bring on the comments

  1. Simmo says:

    My kids love this show, and it’s pretty good for what it is.

    But it is part of the trend in kids tv where boys outnumber girls and take the lead. As my two boys get older i notice this more and more. Theres no real reason it couldn’t be two girls and one boy in the line up.

    Its a little bugbear of mine about the lack of gender equity representation in kids shows. And we just accept it as normal that there’s one girl with two boys nd we dont question it much.

  2. Thomas says:

    Simmo is absolutely right. Why is there one girl in Paw Patrol and three boys? You always get the feeling that they wish they didn’t have to have a token female. On the other hand, the excellent Wonder Pets features two girls and one boy.

    I’d be interested in Paul’s take on Miraculous Ladybug, a french superhero-Sailor Moon hybrid that my kids really like. The games around secret identities in that show are really old-fashioned; you feel like you’re watching silver age superman sometimes. That’s a show that really shows its low budget — it’s set in Paris, but a Paris where the only buildings are one high school, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower.

  3. Paul says:

    In the case of PJ Masks viewed in isolation, I think gender balance is a relatively minor issue. It’s a 2-1 split, Owlette isn’t presented as a token girl, and Disney Junior has a fair number of prominent female-led shows (Sophia the First, Doc McStuffins, Elena of Avalor…) A better target on that channel would be Lion Guard, where Fuli is the only girl for no immediately obvious reason.

    As for Paw Patrol, that’s much more dubious: Skye is the only female in a core cast of six (counting Ryder), and she’s colour coded pink. She certainly looks like she was conceived as a token girl, although the writers have done what they can to retrieve her.

  4. Zoomy says:

    Okay, this sounds completely awesome and I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before now. Clearly I need to watch the whole series this weekend.

    But couldn’t they have called it Pajamasks? They did make Pajanimals… 🙂

  5. Luis Dantas says:

    Boy, have expectations changed. The New Titans of 1980 were remarkable for having three women in a seven heroes roster. Now apparently it is not good enough to have a woman in a three people team, and one has to give a justification for that?

  6. LiamKav says:

    I wouldn’t say that “boys outnumbering girls” is a trend. It’s been true of most cartoons since the 60s. There’s a study (who’s name escapes me) that says that we have been conditioned to think that a 60/40 male/female split is “natural”. Most crowd scenes in films have more men than women. Apparently when it is split 50/50 people feel that the women outnumber the men.

    Times are changing though. In the 80s Transformers cartoon, Ratchet was originally conceived as a woman (which makes the name reference to “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest” make more sense), but Hasbro were quite strict with their “nope, we just want boys to play with this.” Now we’re at a point where sometimes there can be 3 whole girls in a wave of Transformers. Granted, there are 20 odd boy figures, but it’s a step! Some of them aren’t even pink!

  7. Simmo says:

    Luis, what I’d say is that having one woman on a three person team would be fine if there was one single example of having one male on a three person team.

    You never see two girls and one boy, or a girl taking the leadership role.

    I’m not sure what C-Beebies is like but on our own similar channel, over 4 hours of programming with 23 shows, only 3 had female leads, 2 had co-leads with the female role given second billing, and the rest of the shows were male dominated.

    So it’s not a PJ masks issue per se. It’s a children’s tv issue.

  8. Ben says:

    As an American, anyone who says PJs instead of pajamas deserves nothing but scorn.

  9. Taibak says:

    Liam: And when Transformers did finally add a woman, she was colored pink and largely portrayed as a mother figure and love interest.

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