There’s no denying that the children of the world are once again in the grip of Minions mania Minions: The Rise of Gru already among the world’s highest revenue generators of the year. Compared to this global juggernaut or the expensive productions typically offered by Disney and Pixar, the new animated film is Nickelodeon branded Paws of Rage: The Legend of Hank looks like a direct-to-video holdover from 2005, like an off-brand combo rip-off from Zootopia and Kung Fu Panda. It’s a surprise to see him act in cinemas at all. Yet this cheap, silly cartoon offers something that this summer’s other family entertainment offerings have largely avoided: a flurry of genuine jokes.
It’s not that The Rise of Gru has higher goals than making its target group laugh. But its success shows how thoroughly Illumination, its parent studio, has managed to shift expectations of what constitutes comedy in a children’s film. on its surface, Rise of Gru looks like a legacy of the inspired anarchy of old Looney Tunes, and it has some moments that reach those heights. But for the most part, Illumination’s comedy brand consists of mixing together goofy behavior, filler lines that sarcastically comment on the plot without actually making a joke, and goofy poses. Why do the Minions eventually take kung fu lessons? The Rise of Gru? For the same reason that so many animated films end in dance parties: because kids love it when cartoon characters blast through familiar moves.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping kids busy for 90 minutes. And yet there is something welcoming and reassuring about the path paws of rage blends puns, gags, one-liners, and self-referential parodies. Even if some of them – even many! – Making adults groan, the sheer volume of actual jokes becomes impressive, especially in the opening and closing stages of the film. The middle is admittedly thin.
But even so, the film has at least one more workable plot than any Minions film. In a hybrid of Japan and the Old West, mostly populated by cats, the nefarious cat Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) attempts to destroy the local village from within by adopting wannabe samurai Hank (Michael Cera) as her protector sends. Ika Chu assumes that the villagers will not accept Hank because he is a dog. Undeterred by the town’s prejudices and his own inexperience, Hank enlists the help of a reluctant mentor, Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson) to help him save the town from bandits and defeat Ika Chu.
This plot might sound familiar to classic comedy fans, as it’s straight out of the 1974 Mel Brooks Western parody Flaming Saddles. As a Brooks character might cheerfully point out in a meta moment, paws of rage Through the plot came legal: Original Flaming Saddles Writers Brooks, Richard Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger and Norman Steinberg all have screenplay credits paws of ragebecause it was originally called an animated remake Flaming Samurai. The title has been changed, but the spirit of Brooks remains.
Granted, it’s more of a late Brooks spirit. Think back to the moment in the 1993s Robin Hood: Men in Tights when Dave Chappelle’s character Ahchoo is made sheriff. “A black sheriff?!” one character gasps. “Why not?” Ahchu answers. “It worked Flaming Saddles!” Lots of jokes in there paws of rage are at this approximate level minus the mention of breed. The cats’ mockery of dogs is coded xenophobia played out as a parable of an immigrant’s experience rather than a specifically American form of racism. Neither particularly subtle nor particularly revealing, it’s made more somber by a Japanese-tinged setting that (probably unintentionally) puts a racist wrinkle back into a film that carefully excised the boldest element of its predecessor.
Changing from cowboys to samurai does it too paws of rage far less a genre parody, since neither Brooks nor the younger filmmakers who actually made this film seem particularly interested in the dynamics of a samurai film. This is a general purpose spoof with specific nods to older, mostly unrelated American movies like Westside Story and Star Wars. Make no mistake: this is not a replacement for Flaming Saddles. Older children would also be more interested in Brooks space ballsa 1987 Star Wars parody that, while funny, is similarly broad and not particularly versed in the genre it’s fooling around in.
Still, a silly children’s cartoon has value that cares enough to string together a series of gags. So many cartoons in big studios just construct busy, loud set pieces, with slapstick blown up to blockbuster scale. But in paws of rage, most jokes feel like mischievous throwaways, training kids’ ears for comedy rather than stunning them with junior-level spectacle. There are ridiculous cat puns galore. There is some knowingly absurd, anachronistic dialogue. (When one character lists “cars and curiosity” as prominent cat killers, another asks, “What are cars?”, leading to inevitable scolding for his curiosity.) And the characters repeatedly refer to the film’s “85 minutes, not including credits.”
Brooks himself shares this wisdom in his small role as shogun. Is it distasteful to let him play a Japanese character? Pretty sure. Is the animation as elegant and professional as the technique showcased in it light year? Not even close. The best it can do is look a little less ugly than it did in the haphazardly edited trailers. Under normal circumstances, there would be many reasons to skip a passable conversation like paws of rage. But this summer, when kids’ movies have felt like brands looking for either a grown-up emotional hook (like Pixar’s light year) or comic set pieces that rarely merge (as in The Rise of Gru), the simplicity of plot and jokes paws begins to feel downright lovable.
Paws of Rage: The Legend of Hank is in cinemas now.