Every once in a while, someone on Twitter will offer the tired, reliably ill-informed take that one could not make Blazing Saddles today. Obviously, biting satires about racism are being made today. Believing otherwise is really missing the point of the whole thing, to begin with.
But the simple fact of the matter is we also now have the evidence to prove that one, in fact, can make the 1974 Mel Brooks movie today. Unfortunately, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, a new animated film from the Paramount-owned Nickelodeon, directly borrows the premise of Brooks’ work and turns it into a fiery mess. The lesson? Just because one can make Blazing Saddles today is not necessarily a good thing.
For anyone who needs a refresher on Brooks’ Western parody, one of the greatest movies of any genre ever made, the premise is this: A corrupt political figure (Harvey Korman) wants to get rid of a town called Rock Ridge that stands in the way of a railroad project that will make him rich. To create chaos in the town, he appoints a Black sheriff (Cleavon Little) in the hope that the racist townspeople will overreact and run Rock Ridge into the ground. Once this happens, the land will be his.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, which once bore the less verbose title, Blazing Samurai, follows this basic idea. But instead of racist townspeople, there are prejudiced cats. Predictably, they hate dogs. And rather than relying on sheriffs to protect them, each town has a samurai. As part of his plot to claim the town, the evil cat Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) appoints a kind dog named Hank (Michael Cera) as samurai. Naturally, the cats do not respond well.
Adapting the original film in this way is an intriguing premise. After all, Blazing Saddles, like nearly all of Brooks’ other work, is an incisive genre study, constantly playing on its audience’s familiarity with conventions and cliches. One can imagine how such a film could be brought to the animated space with clever homages that also dissect hate and prejudice in a context suitable for children. It is a vision, however, that Paws of Fury comes nowhere close to meeting.
To become a warrior, Hank gets help from Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson), a catnip addict and former Samurai, the feline version of Gene Wilder’s Waco Kid. What follows is the typical Kung-Fu Panda-esque story. At times, in the spirit of Brooks’ film, characters break the fourth wall. When they do, they often acknowledge some kind of convention or cliché. Hank, for example, at one point asks if he is currently in the “training montage.” But, mostly, no further insight or humor follows. Acknowledgment does not equal critique, especially when the movie relies on such tired tropes to keep moving.
The film comes from a trio of directors: Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier, and Chris Bailey. And perhaps surprisingly, the two primary writers, Ed Stone and Nate Hopper share screenplay credits with the original writers of Blazing Saddles: Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger, and Richard Pryor, who died in 2005. The film’s best moments come when it sticks to the Blazing Saddles script, either through near-direct quotes or mirroring visual gags. In those moments, the film works. For example, the famous beans-eating scene, while naturally over the top, finds a funny new home. One sees what could have been if Paws of Fury stuck more to the original’s comedic bones.
It is especially disappointing given the film’s strong beginning. The cats treat the beagle Hank with palpable violence. One begins to wonder whether the on-the-nose “cats versus dog” set-up might actually yield a revelatory film about prejudice. Instead, Paws of Fury opts for the more lazy route: a cheesy, overly familiar tale about a dog who becomes a warrior and kills a bunch of bad guys to earn respect.
Paws of Fury does have its funny moments. The supporting voice cast includes Michelle Yeoh, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias, Djibouti Johnson, and Kylie Kuioka. They squeeze the most they can out of the weak script. Brooks, who recently turned ninety-six and is one of the film’s executive producers, plays the leader Shogun. He delivers lines like, “There’s no business like Shogun business!” in his unmistakable voice. It’s the kind of terrible joke only he can somehow make work.
If only the film had found more Brooksian humor in its adaptation. At the risk of sounding like an old man yelling at the clouds above, Paws of Fury, a film marketed to children, seems to focus too much on the fury. The film’s loud, abundant violence rarely yields comedic or emotional effect. Such violence for its own sake leaves the film and our heads worse off.
Animated films have frequently turned to previous works of art for inspiration. One would not have The Lion King if not for Hamlet. And the work of Mel Brooks deserves as much respect as the work of Shakespeare and carries with it as much of an opportunity to reveal something about the world. How dissatisfying it is that Paws of Fury falls so short of the rich possibilities of its source material.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank debuts in theaters on July 15, 2022