DIRECTORS: Chris Bailey, Mark Koetsier and Rob Minkoff

CAST: Michael Cera, Samuel L. Jackson, Ricky Gervais, Mel Brooks, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias, Djimon Hounsou, Michelle Yeoh, Kylie Kuioka, Aasif Mandvi, Cathy Shim

RUNNING TIME: 97 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: An inexperienced dog samurai (Cera) must protect a village of cats…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles is not only one of the funniest movies ever made, but is also one that could only ever be made in 1974. With its extremely irreverent sense of humour that satirises deeply prejudiced language and rhetoric, the movie would simply have been eaten alive by most critics and audiences were it made and released today in its unchanged format.

However, it appears that it is now possible to make Blazing Saddles in 2022 – all one needs to do is simply make it an animated family film, replace the cast (and with it the heavy racial subtext) with cartoon cats and dogs, and keep the self-aware humour that Brooks’ film is partially remembered for. That’s basically what they did with Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, an animated remake of Blazing Saddles which, on paper, seems like it’s the most derivative and unnecessary cartoon movie of all time, but in actuality is far from the trainwreck one would assume a movie like this would be.

The plot to Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is near identical to that of Blazing Saddles, except instead of the Wild West it’s a land that is entirely populated by cats, and appears to be based on feudal Japan. A crooked official, named Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais, playing the Harvey Korman role), is eager to destroy the nearby town of Kakamucho, and decides to do so by appointing a new samurai who they’ll instantly hate and therefore destroy themselves. He ends up recruiting Hank (Michael Cera, an unlikely stand-in for Cleavon Little), a dog who’s travelled into the forbidden land to learn the ways of the samurai, but lacks both the experience and wisdom to truly become one, and is sent to Kakamucho where the cat residents instantly dislike. Nevertheless, Hank attempts to fulfil his new duties, by learning from washed-up samurai Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson, in the Gene Wilder role) and stopping the forces that Ika Chu sends to the town.

It almost makes too much sense for Blazing Saddles to be remade as a cartoon, given that the original film leaned heavily into its own Looney Tunes logic and slapstick, and Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank really does as well. In terms of both physical and visual comedy, there are more possibilities in animation than with live-action, and the film takes advantage of its medium as much as it can with plenty of fast-paced gags that come and go at breakneck speed, while also retaining that incredibly silly tone which Brooks’ film embraced unconditionally. A key issue, however, is that the other film was much, much funnier; while a good number of gags in Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank do land a few solid laughs, it can’t even begin to compete with the insanely clever and outrageous writing that accompanied Blazing Saddles, and up to a point this film is aware of that fact, since it tends to repeat exact scenes and jokes from the older movie almost verbatim. This movie also features some modern kids’ movie tropes which feel forced into the plot and drag down even the funnier moments of humour, like a cutesy kid character and some cringeworthy modern references that are crowbarred in (and yes, Blazing Saddles had plenty of anachronisms as well, which was part of the joke, but there’s a massive difference between how that movie worked them in and how this one portrays them).

While at times it certainly feels redundant, especially when compared to a comedy that, even almost half a decade later, still manages to make people cry with laughter, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is not a complete waste of time. The animation is certainly lively, the voice acting is energetic, most of the characters are fun to be around, and when it does manage to land a pretty good joke (even when it’s not directly quoting Blazing Saddles) it can actually score some pretty big chuckles. Sure, the racial subtext of the original – arguably the most shocking aspect of that film, both at the time of release and even now – is watered down significantly for the sake of family audiences, but the writers do find a way to still generate some laughs from the sheer prejudice that this dog faces in this all-cat town. Even with Blazing Saddles always being on my mind while watching this, I never felt like I was watching something that was just cynically made to capitalise on that movie’s cult following; you can tell that the animators, writers and directors all have a clear love and admiration for Mel Brooks’ film (to a point where Brooks himself not only has a writing credit, presumably for the lines lifted directly from Blazing Saddles, but also has a small voice role as a character not dissimilar to his Governor character from that film), and have done their best to emulate it without even attempting to surpass it.

Again, between this and Blazing Saddles, there’s no question as to which movie I’d rather rewatch, but the ambition and even the (neutered) balls of Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank to potentially introduce newer generations to a comedy that does deserve to be seen by younger people, racial subtext be damned, makes it much more admirable than a lot of the other animated films I’ve seen so far this year, even though it’s still not exactly a great movie that can land comfortably on its own two feet.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is an admirable attempt to remake Mel Brooks’ comedy classic Blazing Saddles for a family audience, though while it occasionally lands some good laughs, it often pales in comparison to the much funnier and smarter original, especially when it forces in some cringeworthy modern kids’ movie tropes that undermine its otherwise good intentions.

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is now available to stream on Sky Cinema and NOW TV.

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