Review: 'Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank' a blazing samurai story puts Mel Brooks back in the saddle
If you don't already love Mel Brooks, first off, what the hell is wrong with you? I'm not sure we can even be friends. One of the few living legends of Hollywood, Mel Brooks is both featured and revered in the new absurd yet hilarious family animated offering, "Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank." It's an absolute gas - especially for those that know and love Mel Brooks, specifically his iconic 1974 spoof, "Blazing Saddles," a movie that could never, ever be made today. Or if it was, it would end up looking a lot like "Paws of Fury."
The genius of "Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank," is that the creators have managed to essentially remake what is now considered to be a "politically incorrect" classic, under the guise of a simple kiddie flick, and miraculously, it works for both children and adults alike. It's subversive, but comes with a positive message of inclusion. It's risky (trust me) but includes lots of laughs for young ones.
It's a surprise, but "Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank" is one of the funniest movies of the year, one of the best animated films of the year, and is one of the best new IPs (intellectual properties) that has come along in several years (considering the characters and the world that is created).
And oh yeah, it also features Mel Brooks who lends his voice to one of the characters.
It should have gone with its original name of "Blazing Samurais," as that would have been a much better fit than the long and clunky, "Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank." The film is not directed or written by Brooks, but it is fully inspired by "Blazing Saddles" and is chock-ful of Brooks' patented, irreverent brand of ridiculous comedy that has defined his entire filmography.
The tone of comedy is set immediately in "Paws of Fury," when the title appears on the screen and then some characters actually run into it. "Who put that there?" One of them asks. "The Title Department?" the other one says.
The story follows "Blazing Saddles" quite closely. If you remember, the story centered on a black sheriff (Cleavon Little) who came to run an all-white Western town, in order to ruin it so that a greedy corporate villain (Harvey Korman) can build a railroad through the town without having to pay a pretty penny. He teams up with Jim, also known as the "Waco Kid" (Gene Wilder), an alcoholic gunslinger who helps him navigate the ignorant, irate townsfolk.
In "Paws of Fury," we get a version of this story set not in the Old West but in a world full of cat samurais. A greedy villain, Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) needs to destroy a pesky cat village that's in his way, so he concocts a plan to place a dog as the town's samurai protector. The town - KakaMucho (heh heh) - doesn't take kindly to dogs, but Hank (Michael Cera), has wanted to be a samurai his entire life. He teams up with Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson), a former warrior himself, who is addicted not to alcohol but to catnip. The name "Jimbo" is yet another "Blazing Saddles" homage, combining the names of two characters in that film - Jim and Mongo - into one. Ika Chu needs to ruin this town fast, before the Shogun (Mel Brooks) comes to town for a visit.
Not only is the premise similar, but many of the gags are as well. A horse is punched and then falls to the ground. When Hank arrives in town, a lookout yells that he's a "dog" but that word is covered up by the sound of a gong (I won't describe the scene that this is imitating from "Blazing Saddles," but most will remember). There's even a "farting scene," made famous in the original film as a group of cowboys ate beans around a campfire. And do you want to talk about daring comedy for a family film? How about when Hank is ushered into a "VIP" entrance, ahead of a long line of felines, and he asks what the VIP stands for. "Very Important...Pooch," he is told. I wonder what "P" word would have described the cats? It's no wonder why Ricky Gervais would lend his voice to such a project!
It's been a while since a family movie has had such energy and confidence...it's been an eternity since a movie in this genre has felt something other than PC. "Paws of Fury" is refreshing in this way. The animation isn't the most impressive you'll ever see, but it is done in an expressive, cutesy way that will invite youngsters to be engaged.
The main cast is filled out with a bunch of side characters, all uniquely rendered, like Ika Chu's doltish bodyguard, Ohga (George Takei), or the brave young kitten Emiko (Kylie Kuioka) who isn't afraid of anything. A big fat cat, Sumo (Djimon Hounsou) comes later, and Brooks as The Shogun isn't underused and is thankfully more than a glorified cameo.
I just felt like it was a heck of an accomplishment, a heck of a spin, to take what some consider to be an untouchable property like "Blazing Saddles," re-imagine what Mel Brooks was trying to say with it and re-package the message for a generation who needs to hear it. "Paws of Fury" differs in one big way from "Blazing Saddles," and that's in how it works best for children. "Blazing Saddles" is a lot of things, but a kid movie it ain't. "Paws of Fury" on the other hand, is the sort of movie that children will love, not to mention their parents who are in the know.
And if you're not in the know, stop right now and go watch "Blazing Saddles." Heck, re-watch all Mel Brooks movies. He's been making people laugh for nearly a century, and it's heart-warming to know that his comedy - even specific jokes - are being passed down to yet another generation. "Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank" preserves some of his best work, in a movie accessible to all, without the stigma or fear of anything being "politically incorrect."
That alone is worth the price of admission.
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Action.
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes.
Starring (voices of): Michael Cera, Ricky Gervais, Samuel L. Jackson, Mel Brooks, Kylie Kuioka, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias, Aasif Mandvi, Michelle Yeoh, Djimon Hounsou
Directed by Chris Bailey (feature-film directorial debut), Mark Koetsier (feature-film directorial debut) & Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King," "Mr. Peabody & Sherman").
"Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank" is in theaters on Friday, July 15th, 2022.
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