The amusing “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” capably makes the case that more animated kids’ movies should be based on classic comedies.
Formerly titled “Blazing Samurai,” “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” written by Ed Stone and Nate Hopper, directed by Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King”), Mark Koetsier, and Chris Bailey, borrows a title structure from the Bruce Lee movie “Fist of Fury” and riffs on the classic Mel Brooks Western comedy “Blazing Saddles” (Brooks also offers a delightful vocal performance).
It’s a breezy, funny, highly self-referential flick steeped in movie history.
Stone and Hopper swap the Old West setting for a Japanese village inhabited entirely 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. “Paws of Fury” stylistically inhabits the aesthetic of the Western and the classic martial arts movie, and while it plays enthusiastically with genre and style, don’t sweat overthinking it.
Characters cheerfully announce the genre-honed story beats like “training montage” and “this is the part where I find a mentor,” and as the film rounds home base, they start to reassure the audience that the running time is only 85 minutes (without credits), letting us all in on the knowing jokes about familiar formats.
If you know the plot of “Blazing Saddles,” you know what goes down in “Paws of Fury,” but here’s the part where I refresh your memory anyway. Ricky Gervais voices an evil cat named Ika Chu (yes, there are Pokémon jokes) who, in preparation for a visit from the Shogun (Brooks), has been erecting giant jade toilets in a sprawling palace, and hopes to eradicate the small village of Kakamucho next door with a team of covert bandits. It’s giving the Olympic Games, if you know what I mean.
The residents of Kakamucho demand a new samurai to protect them, and so Ika Chu plucks Hank, the wannabe samurai dog, from the execution line and sends him over with a hastily engraved “samurai cup,” expecting the locals to off him. The film replaces the racial commentary of “Saddles” with interspecies comedy, and like Sheriff Bart, Hank ingratiates himself with the locals, including ‘nip-head Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson). When Hank discovers Jimbo is a washed-up samurai himself, he weasels his way into some training.
Like a good dog, Hank manages to befriend (almost) every nemesis — including the “beast” Ika Chu sends over, Sumo (Djimon Hounsou), a roly-poly orange cat — and even the feline skeptics in Kakamucho, including the fierce and adorable Emiko (Kylie Kuioka). As Ika Chu gathers an evil army to destroy their village, Hank and the villagers will have to learn to band together to save their home. But most importantly, Hank will have to earn a breakthrough with stern samurai Jimbo, who has turned to the bottle after a great shame in his past.
The jokes are fast and dense, and the filmmakers manage to squeeze in many movie references within the brief runtime, as well as some stylistic experimentation. It’s nice to see some creative liberties taken with the comics-inspired pointillistic style of the flashbacks, or the more traditional Japanese illustrations of the legends that start the film (with a rather rousing power ballad to boot).
The animated character design is cute and expressive, but it’s all a bit flat, set against the kind of 2-D landscape backdrops typical of classic Looney Tunes shorts. That Looney Tunes sensibility is also reflected in the cartoonish violence that a Western samurai film necessitates. There’s also a wordy absurdism to some of the set pieces, like a “telephone” that’s literally a long line of cats playing Telephone.
Where “Paws of Fury” shines is in its voice acting: Cera and Jackson both deliver wonderful performances as Hank and Jimbo, while Hounsou is excellent playing against type as Sumo. It’s also a treat to enjoy the 96-year-old Brooks’ spry vocal performance as the Shogun, and Gervais’ snide, nearly Jafar-like turn as Ika Chu. Michelle Yeoh, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias and Aasif Mandvi also contribute voices as villagers or henchmen.
“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is quite clever, though it remains a bit spare and rangy. It’s a whole lotta concept, references, and quick jokes, but it doesn’t delve below that glib surface. There’s not a lot of depth, though one wouldn’t necessarily expect a lot of depth from an 85 minute movie extolling “The Legend of Hank.”
One could do a whole lot worse for an afternoon at the movies with the kids, or even on repeat at home. Hitting that sweet spot between silly and smart, this movie should delight movie-nerd parents and kids who have a taste for more action-packed absurdism.
“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” opens in US theaters July 15.