‘Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank’ Slices Through Light Laughs With Nods at ‘Blazing Saddles’

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is an animated family film that is also a loose adaptation of “Blazing Saddles,” that great comedy classic by Mel Brooks. That may raise some eyebrows with adult readers who remember the 1974 film’s rowdy, sometimes raunchy, satirical jabs at American racism. Despite being 48-years-old, it’s a movie the average parent still wouldn’t let their second grader watch. So here we get a watered down take on that material with a general message about prejudices. The aims of this movie are not bad at all and quite commendable. Where it falls short is in how it has an exciting concept but doesn’t go all the way with it. The animation is just good enough while the jokes are a quick distraction for the kids. 

In “Blazing Saddles,” a town in the Wild West has to grapple with their new sheriff being Black. In “Paws of Fury,” a town in what we assume is Japan, named Kakamucho, where all inhabitants are cats, faces the onslaught of raiders secretly employed by Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais), a Somali cat and high official wishing to wipe out the town for his own, expansionist aims. When the local Shogun (Brooks) demands action be taken, Ika Chu devises a scheme to send an imprisoned Beagle named Hank (Michael Cera) to be the new samurai of Kakamucho. Since cats naturally hate dogs, Chu is convinced the residents will quickly kick out Hank. Indeed, once the dog arrives, the kitty masses are in an uproar. But the new samurai soon makes friends with a cat in the drunk tank, Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson). It turns out Jimbo was once a mighty samurai himself before failing his master. He agrees to teach Hank the ways of combat before Chu’s minions ride into town again.

While Ed Stone and Nate Hopper are credited as writers in “Paws of Fury,” the film also credits the original “Blazing Saddles” scribing team of Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger and the legendary and late Richard Pryor. It’s probably as part of the wider in-joke since this film’s original title was originally “Blazing Samurai.” Much of “Paws of Fury” does follow the pattern of the ‘74 movie, or at least the basic story beats. For its intended young audience, it may just prove entertaining enough with slapstick jokes about cats hating on dogs or the occasional fart joke (which also a nod to the famous bean sequence in the Brooks movie). Samuel L. Jackson is a stand out with his sarcastic humor and dialogue that hints at F-bombs without actually dropping them. For the adults who are familiar with “Blazing Saddles” and Brooks’s other work, there are also many winks strewn around that will inspire grins. At a lively 96 years-of-age, it’s endearing to hear Brooks appear to have so much fun voicing a role, riding off exclaiming “it’s good to be the Shogun!” He’s also straddled with some weaker lines that try too hard (“there’s no business like Shogun business!”). 

Still, this is not an edgy animated take on a classic. The infamous Ricky Gervais is kept pretty tame, even as his character devises a vanity scheme involving the creation of a giant toilet. Hank is a cute hero who gets rewarded with doggy bones and treats by grateful towns cats after saving their skins. Mongo, the dimwit muscle goon from “Blazing Saddles,” is evoked here in a large cat named Sumo (Djimon Hounsou), who just needs good friends. A kid in town, Emiko (Kylie Kuioka), wants to fight and is one of the few who supports Hank from the moment he arrives. Basically, it’s a lot of standard animated movie material that pales next to some more creative, recent titles like “The Sea Beast.” The animation design is rather standard and almost fit for Cartoon Network. This is not to say it wouldn’t be enjoyable for a younger audience member, although they will probably find more joy overall in the new Minions film. Some of the Western meets Japan vistas are pleasant while slapstick visuals nodding at “Blazing Saddles” have small charms, like Sumo riding into town on a hog.

One is almost tempted to give “Paws of Fury” a pass for its more enjoyable moments and overall intentions. With everything going on in the world, very young viewers might draw the connection of cats having to accept a dog with the prejudices the adults around them probably practice. But as an animated heir to “Blazing Saddles,” it’s a rather standard comedy without much else. The ending is all chortles with overflowing toilets and cats needing to learn how to dig a moat. The writers also avoid giving Hank a love interest like the moody German cabaret singer in the Brooks movie. Hank does share a suggestive look with Emiko’s mother (Michelle Yeoh), although the movie never clarifies how such a relationship would work in this world. “Paws of Fury” works best as an introduction. Kids will see it and when they get older discover “Blazing Saddles,” drawing the connections and hopefully developing a sharp funny bone.

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” releases July 15 in theaters nationwide.