Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank hits theaters on Friday July 15.
Relentlessly committed to the bit, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is a Mel Brooks film in every respect. Not a real one, written and directed by comedy legend Brooks, but one that emulates Brooks’ style, tone, and gags while referencing Brooks’ own films. To clarify, Brooks himself is involved in Paws of Fury as the voice of the Shogun, and the film itself is more or less a remastered version of Blazing Saddles (it was even titled Blazing Samurai at one point in its development), so that’s the closest you can get. I’ll be getting to a real Mel Brooks movie here in 2022, for better or for worse.
Paws of Fury is a little clumsy, a little choppy, and not exactly animated eye candy. The story is tired and many of the jokes fizzle out. That being said, it’s still good for a chuckle or two if not just because Mel Brooks’ entire MO is throwing a hundred jokes at the wall hoping 30 of them stick. The humor here, in this simple tale of an unfortunate dog, Hank (Michael Cera), who is made protector of a cat village, is literally forced through Brooks’ lens, as if any potential laughter were drawn from a “What would Mel do?” philosophy .
All of this makes for an extremely odd project where the target audience – namely children – are totally unaware of the Brooks-esque layers when watching an animated adventure created by people who seem just out to get themselves amuse by honoring their comedy idol. This is Paws of Fury’s lone salvation as well, as it ultimately helps set it apart from what could have been a run-of-the-mill celebrity-filled cartoon mishap. It doesn’t help it rise, but it does keep it from sinking.
Cera’s wide-eyed pooch is quickly promoted to samurai status by a scheming local cat lord (Ricky Gervais, poisonous, of course) who wants Hank to fail and plans to evict the villagers because the town is an eyesore. Samuel L. Jackson plays Jimbo, a disgraced, aging samurai who reluctantly mentores Hank in much the same way that Blazing Saddle’s “Jim” (Gene Wilder) helps Cleavon Little’s beard.
Even the racism Bart encounters in Blazing Saddles as a black sheriff is treated here, masked behind the cats’ alleged hatred of dogs. Throw in a tribute to the iconic fart scene and there’s not much of Blazing Saddles that isn’t reconfigured in this ridiculous reskin.
George Takei, Michelle Yeoh, Djimon Hounsou, Gabriel Iglesias and the aforementioned Brooks round out the illustrious cast and throw themselves wholeheartedly into this odd concoction from directors Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little 1 & 2) and Mark Koetsier. Puns and sight gags pop up between current and non-current jokes, landing frequently enough to keep things amusing. Make no mistake though, there are some real groans here because this is the kind of movie where Takei doesn’t say “Oh myyyy” once, but twice.
Since Shrek, many animated films have filled their ranks with celebrity voices and pop culture references. The goal was to entertain the kids with the colors and the adults, many of whom mistakenly assume they don’t want to see animation, with the jokes. As time went on, the gags got further and further removed from the story itself, as if two separate films were struggling to coexist. Paws of Fury feels like the final evolution of it. It’s almost as if this film was created as a Mel Brooks staple for parents whose kids aren’t at all interested in watching the movies their parents grew up watching.
Paws of Fury’s bizarre existence and inspired silliness allow him to achieve a smooth victory in the crowded realm of derivative animation. The hero’s journey aspect is routine and the meta elements are grueling, but there’s a glow behind it all that shines as an awe-inspiring beacon for Mel Brooks in what may be the last of this particular type of film. If you’re taking a trip outside to see a feature-length cartoon in the near future and you want to stay minion-free, then Paws of Fury isn’t the worst alternative.
The 25 Best Disney Animated Movies