“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” stars Michael Cera, Ricky Gervais, Mel Brooks, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias, Djimon Hounsou, Michelle Yeoh, and Samuel L. Jackson. Released on July 15, 2022, the film is about a dog training to be a samurai.
The film was directed by Rob Minkoff, who also directed films such as “The Lion King”, “Stuart Little”, “The Forbidden Kingdom”, and “Mr. Peabody & Sherman”. Its co-directors were Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey. It is loosely inspired by the 1974 film “Blazing Saddles” by Mel Brooks. Many legends depict a fearless samurai who rises from the ashes to protect the world from the forces of evil. Some are great, some are powerful, and some are…furry. This weekend brings us yet another animated film hoping to lure in plenty of families this summer filled with cuddly characters and cartoon shenanigans. This movie has been in development since 2010 as it bounced from one studio to the next until its official announcement in 2014. It was originally scheduled for a 2017 release under Open Road Films with its former title “Blazing Samurai”. However, it was delayed indefinitely, leaving us to question whether this martial arts comedy would ever see the light of day. Luckily, that question was later answered when Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies acquired the film in January for a summer release. Its development history captured my interest in the movie, which features a dog in a cat-only village. But, of course, there were additional reasons why I was curious to check it out, including its A-list cast and director Rob Minkoff’s involvement. That’s right, The guy behind one of the best animated films of all time was directing a movie about cats and dogs learning kung fu. There’s definitely some star power swirling around its action-packed concept, but are they enough to deliver some martial arts fun for the whole family? Let’s find out.
The story follows Hank (Cera), a down-on-his-luck beagle who dreams of being a heroic samurai. Inspired to become one, he comes across a village inhabited by nothing but cats. However, the feline villagers aren’t very welcoming towards Hank because, you know, cats and dogs have been sworn enemies since the dawn of time. Nevertheless, despite being labeled an outsider, Hank is determined to make his dream a reality. With the help of his trainer Jimbo (Jackson), a reluctant sensei falling on hard times, Hank sets out to defend the people from Ika Chu (Gervais), a warmongering cat who plots to wipe the village off the map.
The movie takes many cues from Mel Brooks’ comedy classic “Blazing Saddles”, which involved a black man defending a white-only town, such as its satirical humor and representation of racial stereotypes. However, they are altered to make the film suitable for young kids. In short, it’s like you’re watching a family-friendly version of “Blazing Saddles” filled with cuddly cartoon characters and physical comedy. It also resembles the “Kung Fu Panda” films, which also feature anthropomorphic animals learning kung fu. So that’s another way to describe this animated action comedy: A ripoff of one of DreamWorks Animation’s successful franchises. Thankfully, it looks nothing like the cheaply-made “Kung Fu Panda” ripoffs you’d find at a bargain bin quality-wise, but does it mean it’s more tolerable than the other knockoffs? Yes, it does.
As mentioned earlier, the story is a PG-rated version of “Blazing Saddles” without the abundance of adult content. Although, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any adult jokes sprinkled in there to keep the parents entertained. The best thing a story can do in a movie like this is to embrace its own identity: a gleefully entertaining satire of the martial arts genre and its storytelling cliches. Granted, “Minions: The Rise of Gru” had a similar goal in delivering harmless goofy fun for families. However, it cost itself the franchise’s ever-lasting charm to accomplish that goal, making it more tedious than wholesome. On the other hand, “Paws of Fury” succeeds in providing what the marketing promised while maintaining its charismatic nature and coherent narrative. In other words, I thought “Paws of Fury” did a better job accomplishing this objective compared to the yellow creatures’ latest outing. I’m sorry, but that’s just how I feel about it.
Now, that’s not to say that “Paws of Fury” is considered “best animated movie” material. While the film does poke fun at the cliches it represents, it doesn’t stop it from marking some familiar territory from the other movies that came before it. There were also a few moments when the movie rushed its character development to get to the next fourth-wall-breaking joke. It’s a carbon copy of other animated films that handled their cliches more effectively, mainly “Kung Fu Panda”. Fortunately, it offers a decent amount of entertainment and humor to slice its way out of its familiar narrative trappings. It also delivers good messages for kids, such as acceptance, friendship, and living life to the fullest.
As for the characters, they may not have much to join the animation hall of fame, but they do inject some likability and charm into their personalities. First, Hank is a bumbling dog who never gives up on following his dream of being a samurai. Next, Jimbo is a cranky former master who’s guilty of an incident that led him to his retirement. Then you have Ika Chu, a typical antagonist plotting to destroy the village for his own needs. Here’s a funny story about this character. When I first heard his name, I thought they called him “Pikachu” from Pokemon. It’s weird because the villain’s name is Pikachu without the “P”. Finally, there’s Emiko (Kylie Kuioka), a small cat child who’s also determined to protect her village. Their growths aren’t something to write home about, but the characters delivered plenty of joyful moments to please the film’s target audience.
In addition to its fun characters, the movie has many recognizable names that bring the furry toons to life. Seriously, there are plenty of big names worth noticing, ranging from Michael Cera to the beloved Samuel L. Jackson to the comedy legend himself, Mel Brooks. I thought most of them did a decent job with their voice work. Cera, in particular, was undoubtedly humorous as Hank, and Jackson was just as entertaining as always regarding his role as Jimbo. I would also give credit to George Takei and Djimon Hounsou for providing a huge amount of charm and laughs as Ohga and Sumo, respectively.
The animation mostly succeeds in injecting vibrant energy into its settings, slapstick, and action sequences. Considering that it’s produced by an animation studio outside of Disney and DreamWorks, that’s quite an accomplishment. Admittedly, it didn’t match the quality of the “Kung Fu Panda” movies, but at least it’s not as unappealing as the latest “Ice Age” sequel on Disney+. The humor consists of fourth-wall breaks, satirical references, and stuff you’d typically see in other kid-friendly movies like cat and dog puns and a fart joke. Understandably, it might not impress everyone, but I found myself laughing a lot at the movie poking fun at itself. Not all of them stuck the landing, but they were amusing enough to make me not regret my decision.
Overall, “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is a surprisingly fun underdog story that also works as a gleeful animated counterpart of Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy classic. Even though its story has the usual cliches it’s mocking at, the film punches, kicks, and slices its way out of mediocrity to deliver another source of old-fashioned, family-friendly entertainment. From its decent voice cast to its clever self-referential humor, this animated feature is a howling good time for its target audience. It’s worth checking out if you’re familiar with “Blazing Saddles” or if you’re looking for a cartoon unrelated to the Minions.