The hilarious Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank makes the wise case that more animated children’s movies should be based on classic comedy.
The formerly Blazing Samurai, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, written by Ed Stone and Nate Hopper and directed by Rob Minkoff (The Lion King), Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey, borrows one Title structure from the Bruce Lee film “Fist of Fury” and riffs on the classic western comedy “Blazing Saddles” by Mel Brooks (Brooks also provides a delightful vocal performance).
It’s a breezy, funny, highly self-absorbed flick steeped in film history.
Stone and Hopper trade the Wild West setting for a Japanese village inhabited only by cats, and the intrepid Sheriff Bart, played by Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, for a dog named Hank (voiced by Michael Cera), who dreams of being a samurai. Stylistically, Paws of Fury inhabits the aesthetics of the western and classic martial arts film, and while it plays enthusiastically with genre and style, you don’t sweat contemplating it.
Characters gleefully herald the genre-polished story beats like “training montage” and “this is the part where I find a mentor,” and as the film circles its home base, they begin to reassure the audience that the runtime is only 85 minutes (without credits), which initiate us all into the knowing jokes about well-known formats.
If you know the Blazing Saddles plot, you know what happens in Paws of Fury, but here’s the part where I’ll refresh your memory anyway. Ricky Gervais voices an evil cat named Ika Chu (yes, Pokémon jokes exist) who has erected giant jade toilets in a sprawling palace in preparation for a visit from the Shogun (Brooks) and hopes to wipe out the small village of Kakamucho next door with a team of covert bandits. There’s the Olympics, if you know what I mean.
The residents of Kakamucho demand a new samurai to protect them, so Ika Chu retrieves Hank, the wannabe samurai dog, from the execution line and sends him over with a hastily engraved “samurai mug” in anticipation that the locals get rid of him. The film replaces Saddles’ racial commentary with interspecies comedy, and like Sheriff Bart, Hank flatters the locals, including Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson). When Hank finds out that Jimbo is a shabby samurai himself, he weaves his way through to a training session.
Like a good dog, Hank manages to befriend (almost) every nemesis – including the “beast” that Ika Chu sends over, Sumo (Djimon Hounsou), a chubby orange cat – and even the feline Defiants in Kakamucho, including the wild ones and the adorable Emiko (Kylie Kuioka). As Ika Chu assembles an evil army to destroy her village, Hank and the villagers must learn to band together to save their homeland. But most importantly, Hank must carve out a breakthrough with strict samurai Jimbo, who turned to the bottle after a great disgrace in his past.
The jokes are fast and tight, and the filmmakers manage to fit plenty of film references into the short running time, as well as some stylistic experimentation. It’s nice to see them taking some creative liberties with the comic-inspired pointillist style of the flashbacks, or the more traditional Japanese illustrations of the legends that open the film (with a pretty rousing power ballad to boot).
The design of the animated characters is cute and expressive, but all a little flat, set against the 2-D landscape backdrops typical of classic Looney Tunes shorts. This Looney Tunes sensibility is also reflected in the cartoonish violence that a western samurai film demands. Some of the set pieces also have a wordy absurdity, like a “telephone” which is literally a long line of cats playing telephone.
Where Paws of Fury shines is in its voice acting: Cera and Jackson both give wonderful performances as Hank and Jimbo, while Hounsou plays sumo against guys brilliantly. It’s also a treat to enjoy 96-year-old Brooks’ lively vocal performance as the Shogun and Gervais’ derogatory, almost Jafar-esque turn as Ika Chu. Michelle Yeoh, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias and Aasif Mandvi also contribute their voices as villagers or henchmen.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is pretty smart, although it stays a bit sparse and flimsy. It’s a whole lot of concepts, references, and quick jokes, but it doesn’t go below that superficial surface. There’s not much depth, although you wouldn’t necessarily expect much depth from an 85-minute film praising The Legend of Hank.
For an afternoon at the movies with the kids, or even for a home replay, it could be a lot worse. Striking the sweet spot between silly and clever, this film should appeal to movie nerd parents and kids with a penchant for more action-packed absurdism.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank opens in US theaters on July 15.