Richard Pryor would no doubt have been amused, or possibly chagrined, to see his name on the writing credits for Paramount’s new animated kiddie film. In case you’re wondering how someone who’s long dead is still managing to crank out screenplays, it’s because Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, whose original title was Blazing Samurai, is an extremely loose reimagining of Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic comedy Blazing Saddles, for which Pryor received a writing credit. Not that any of this will matter to the extremely young target audience, except to prove that vulgar humor will score laughs regardless of whether it’s the R or PG-rated variety.
And this movie certainly doesn’t shy away from vulgarity, taking the idea of “toilet humor” all too literally with its far too many gags regarding a giant jade toilet and numerous bodily functions that tykes (of all ages) seem to find uproariously funny. You can rest assured knowing that Blazing Saddles’ famous campfire scene, with the addition of bursts of flame, is given its due animated treatment. Mel Brooks shows up as well, voicing the role of a Shogun who proclaims, naturally, “It’s good to be the Shogun!”
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Hank, voiced by Michael Cera, is a hapless dog who finds himself recruited to protect the cat village of Kakamucho (them’s the jokes, folks) from being destroyed by the evil feline Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais, playing only slight less villainous than when he’s hosting the Golden Globes). That Hank is a canine doesn’t sit well with the townspeople — sorry, townscats — especially when he turns out to be a samurai without any actual fighting skills. So he reluctantly turns to Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson), a samurai who’s seen better days, to train him for the inevitable battle with Ika Chu’s minions.
Cue the inevitable training scene montage which leads to one of the film’s many tired meta-gags. “Hey, this is the training montage, isn’t it?” Hank asks, in one of numerous moments in which the characters demonstrate that they know they’re in a silly film. Later, another helpfully informs us, “This movie is only 85 minutes long, not including end credits,” which will at least help parents time their children’s bathroom breaks.
The screenplay, credited to the five original Blazing Saddles writers as well as Ed Stone and Nate Hopper, is relentlessly silly but only intermittently funny. The homages to its inspiration are liberally peppered throughout, from a similarly styled theme song to a massively sized bad guy (Djimon Hounsou) punching a horse. Of course, the little ones will more notice this film’s resemblance to the Kung Fu Panda franchise, but, as animated movies prove time and again, familiarity is only an asset.
Adult chaperones will possibly get a kick out of the many pop culture-themed gags, including jokes about West Side Story, Mamma Mia! and, of course, Cats (the screenwriters are clearly musical theater lovers), as well as more esoteric references to such things as Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel Maus.
There’s plenty of star talent in the voice cast, including George Takei, Michelle Yeoh, and Assif Mandvi and Gabriel Iglesias as a wisecracking duo. Brooks delivers his one-liners with the same gusto, albeit raspier-voiced, that he’s always exhibited, and Jackson once again proves that his charisma and comic timing translate perfectly to animated form. Far less attention has been paid to the computer animation, which, with the exception of some vividly rendered flashback scenes, is visually undistinguished.
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