Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank arrives in theaters on Friday, July 15.
Relentlessly committed to the bit, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, for all intents and purposes, is a Mel Brooks movie. Not an actual one, written and directed by comedy legend Brooks, but one that emulates Brooks’ style, tone, and gags while also referencing Brooks’ own movies. To clarify, Brooks himself is involved with Paws of Fury, as the voice of the Shogun, and the movie itself is more or less a reworked version of Blazing Saddles (it was even titled Blazing Samurai at one point in its development), so this is the closest thing you’ll get to an actual Mel Brooks film here in 2022, for better or worse.
Paws of Fury is a touch clumsy, a bit hacky, and not exactly an animated treat for the eyes. The story is tired and many of the jokes fall flat. All that aside, it’s still good for a chuckle or two if not only because Mel Brooks’ entire M.O. is to throw a hundred jokes at the wall in the hope 30 of them will stick. So the humor here, in this simple story of a hapless dog, Hank (Michael Cera), being made the protector of a cat village, is literally forced through the lens of Brooks as if every potential guffaw was born of a “What would Mel do?” philosophy.
This all makes for an extremely oddball project, where the target audience — namely kids — remain wholly unaware of the Brooks-ian layers as they view an animated adventure created by people seemingly out to only amuse themselves by honoring their comedy idol. This also happens to be Paws of Fury’s lone saving grace, as it does, in the end, help differentiate it from something that could have been a run-of-the-mill celebrity-stuffed cartoon calamity. It doesn’t help it soar but it stops it from sinking.
Cera’s wide-eyed pooch is fast-tracked into samurai status by a scheming local cat lord (Ricky Gervais, naturally venomous) who wants Hank to fail and plots to have the local villagers vacate because the town is an eyesore. Samuel L. Jackson plays Jimbo, a disgraced aging samurai who reluctantly mentors Hank, in the same way Blazing Saddles’ “Jim” (Gene Wilder) helps Cleavon Little’s Bart.
Even the racism Bart encounters in Blazing Saddles as a Black sheriff is handled here, masked behind the cats’ presumed hatred of dogs. Throw in an homage to the iconic fart scene and there’s not much of Blazing Saddles that doesn’t get reconfigured in this ridiculous reskin.
George Takei, Michelle Yeoh, Djimon Hounsou, Gabriel Iglesias, and the already mentioned Brooks round out the famous voice cast, throwing themselves whole-heartedly into this strange brew from directors Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little 1 & 2) and Mark Koetsier. Puns and sight gags bob in and out of jokes both current and out of touch, landing frequently enough to keep things amusing. Make no mistake though, there are some true groaners in here, as this is the type of film to have Takei say “Oh myyyy” not once, but twice.
Ever since Shrek, many animated films have filled their ranks with celebrity voices and pop-culture references. The goal was to entertain the children with the colors and grown ups, who many wrongly assume don’t want to watch an animated film, with the jokes. Over time, the gags grew increasingly further and further away from being grounded in the story itself, as if two separate films were struggling to coexist. Paws of Fury feels like the final evolutionary stage of this. It’s almost like this film was created as a Mel Brooks primer for parents whose kids aren’t at all interested in watching the movies their folks grew up with.
Paws of Fury’s bizarre existence and inspired goofiness allows it to eke out a soft victory in the crowded realm of derivative animation. The hero’s journey aspect is rote and the meta elements are exhausting but there’s a glow behind it all that shines as a reverent beacon for Mel Brooks in what might be the last of this particular type of film. If an outside trip to see a feature-length cartoon is in your near future, and you find yourself wanting to remain Minion-free, then Paws of Fury isn’t the worst alternative.
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