Sometimes you don’t need to remake a film. This was not one of those times. Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank began life under the title Blazing Samurai, a blatant remake of Blazing Saddles for a younger audience using animation to tweak the story to feudal Japan. While it’s a silly idea on paper, executing it was an entirely different story and I think it’s been a fairly successful one. While this is far from the first time a family movie has smuggled a message about letting go of generational prejudices (think Zootopia), sometimes it can be wrapped in a more entertaining package. and the three directors and eight listed writers somehow pulled this off.
Hank (Michael Cera) is a clumsy beagle, downtrodden and depressed after growing up helpless in a bad dog neighborhood that looks a lot like West Side Story. He takes a boat to CatLand (which I guess is just Japan?) to become a samurai, where he is recruited by the persnickety and evil Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) specifically because of his bumbling nature. Serving as the samurai for the local town, Kakamucho, he is taken under the wing of former samurai Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson) to learn the ways of the ancient order and defend his new home. Ika Chu schemes to demolish the place, convinced that it ruins his view, and he teams with Ohga (George Takei) and Sumo (Djimon Hounsou) to execute his plans before a visit from the Shogun (Mel Brooks).
There’s a lot to unpack in a movie that openly aims to teach kids to let go of the racism and hatred of previous generations while also bombarding them with jokes about Twitter and giant jade toilets. There’s not one minute where something funny isn’t happening onscreen, and even the heartfelt speeches contain references to the film’s runtime and meta callbacks to Blazing Saddles. It can be overwhelming, but the joyous and unbridled nature of the animation goes a long way to helping with the visual gags to play to all audiences. Everything about the designs and executions of jokes feels more akin to a Tex Avery joint than anything modern, allowing for some fun Wile E. Coyote-style abuse that lands at almost every point.
While not every gag lands, I think the swashbuckling adventure baked into the DNA of the story is undeniably fun and works as a vessel to carry a good message to kids. I do, unfortunately, recognize that this will come under a lot of fire for cultural appropriation and those accusations will be accurate. The same discussion took place when Wes Anderson released Isle of Dogs, a movie that I love a lot that contains a lot of adoration and references to Japanese media. This new film has that same adoration, harkening back to Kaiju films and gonzo bits from Lone Wolf and Cub. It adores modern anime as much as it does the samurai films of Kurosawa, and that love comes through despite the eighty-five-minute runtime (pointed out by multiple characters in the film).
It’s going to get some flack, but I think Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is a blast and I couldn’t recommend it more. Mixed animation styles, modernization of a problematic classic, and some genuinely fun gags make for a wonderful time for the whole family.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is currently playing in theatres.