“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is a pooch of a movie. If reimagining the 1974 western parody “Blazing Saddles” as a cuddly, computer-animated parody of samurai movies seems like a misconception, well, that’s because it is.
Where “Blazing Saddles” confronted prejudice head-on, setting a black sheriff in a narrow-minded white border town, “Paws” takes on the satire of the previous film by filling this kid-friendly tale with – wait for it. – cats and dogs. In this version, our hero is a naive pup named Hank (voiced by the eternally innocent Michael Cera), who dreams of becoming a katana-wielding warrior when tasked with protecting the cat population of the fictional village of Kakamucho.
Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey are co-directing a new script credited not only to Ed Stone and Nate Hopper but also to the original “Saddles” team: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger. The loose framework of the “Saddles” plot remains, and the 96-year-old Brooks delightfully voices the shogun who rules Kakamucho (recounting his role as governor in “Blazing Saddles”). Yet this lively homage feels more hollow than honest, replicating the story beats and comedic styles of “Saddles” without any subversive humor. Logic for a film for children? Yes, but still shocking.
The confusing marriage of source material and medium aside, “Paws” is at least a breezy summertime diversion. Artificial yet cute, the film deserves credit for its accusation of insularity, plus a few hearty laughs – all while clocking in at just 90 minutes, not counting the closing credits or the short that plays before the feature.
That doesn’t leave much time to flesh out the characters, although it’s not for lack of trying. Filling the role of Gene Wilder in “Saddles,” an amusing Samuel L. Jackson voices Jimbo, a tuxedo cat who was once an esteemed samurai but now drinks his sorrows with an infusion of catnip. Ricky Gervais is on autopilot as Ika Chu, the evil Somali cat who wants to perfect the view from his palace by wiping Kakamucho off the map. Djimon Hounsou speaks with a slow timbre like the oversized cretin of a feline sent to put Hank’s tail between his legs. And Kylie Kuioka voices a feisty kitten named Emiko with her own aspirations to become a samurai.
The fourth-wall-breaking shtick — a defining trait of “Saddles” — is most successful when dealing in silly sight gags. (“Where did that come from?” asks one character after crashing into the film’s opening title. “The Titles Department,” another dutifully replies.) Rolling that entertainment. Of course, George Takei, as Ika Chu’s distracted lieutenant, will unleash his catchphrase endlessly, “Oh my God!” But do we need it twice? Having Star Wars alum Jackson make a thinly veiled reference to the Force feels equally awkward.
While the assembly line animation is mostly uninspiring, there are flashes of ingenuity. The pencil-drawn images of the opening credits – accompanied by a song referencing the film’s original title, “Blazing Samurai” – are striking. So does the dark, blackish filter laid over flashback footage that explains Hank’s budding samurai origins and Jimbo’s comedic downfall. A gritty parody of Godzilla also provides welcome visual respite.
For the little ones unaware of this film’s inspiration, the rote character arcs and commendable morals should land just fine. And “Paws of Fury” occasionally pulls its claws out with pointed observations about gun control, xenophobia, and irrational intolerance. (“It’s just to hate,” a cat thinks casually.) Such barbs, however, get lost in a deluge of fart jokes and nonsensical actions. In the end, alas, this noisy spectacle is more barking than biting.
Two stars. Rated PG. To theatres. Contains action, violence, crude and suggestive humor, and coarse language. 102 minutes.