I’m not going to sit here and pretend Paws of Fury is a good movie, per se. But I will admit that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I assumed it was going to be. And the biggest reason you’ll be able to sit through it without a migraine comes down to one person: the legendary Mel Brooks.
When the trailer for the new animated comedy Paws of Fury came out, I won’t deny feeling the urge to groan. As an adult you see a trailer for a Nickelodeon movie featuring animated animals playing samurai, and you just think to yourself, “yeah, this isn’t for me.” Then you start to question how you became so cynical. Sure the jokes you’ve seen from the movie don’t necessarily land for me today.
But there was a time in my life when I probably would have been in stitches after seeing a dog stuck between a fat cat’s butt cheeks. And it makes you remember that this sort of movie isn’t for you; it’s for the kids. It’s 87 minutes of jokes and colors designed to make a child smile on a fun Summer afternoon. And for any parent out there, cheesy as it sounds, sharing that afternoon with your kid and watching them light up at the silliness on screen is what it’s all about. And the biggest win you can possibly have for yourself in a silly kid’s movie is making it through without a migraine. Thankfully, Paws of Fury is that kind of movie. But that’s the highest compliment I can give it.
Surprisingly, Paws of Fury is actually a loose reimagining of Brooks’ seminal classic Blazing Saddles. This is why Brooks and all of the screenwriters of Blazing Saddles (including the late, great Richard Pryor) are listed as screenwriters. However, Brooks is also an executive producer, and voice over actor in the film. And because of this, the product is all the more tolerable. Now I didn’t necessarily laugh out loud as I would watching any of his brilliant works (his original film included), but I also can’t deny that I smiled once in a while. Some of the jokes in the film are clever in the “ahead-of-its-time meta” way Brooks’ films were. And in an age of kids’ films dominated by fart guns, HBO Max product placements, and gibberish, it’s nice to have a coherent movie that relies on self-deprecating, self-referential humor in addition to the (sigh) fart jokes, slapstick, and toilet humor.
Paws of Fury, much like Blazing Saddles revolves around a landlord trying to drive the townspeople from the land he owns out of the town, by hiring a sheriff the townsfolk would be prejudiced against. However, in this case, the film takes the concept and changes it from cowboys to samurai. It also changes things from humans to dogs and cats to avoid the racially satirical undertones of Brooks’ original comedy unfit for a kid-friendly audience. Doing so is also a ploy from the filmmakers to avoid any accountability for potentially racist casting choices and cultural appropriation, but we’ll get to that a bit later.
In this adaptation, the world is dominated by cats. One of them, the evil Ika Chu (yes they make the obvious Pikachu joke in this) played by Ricky Gervais, hires a dog named Hank (Michael Cera) to become the new samurai for the village, knowing the all-cat village will want to drive him out immediately. To make matters worse, Hank has zero fighting skills, and is ill-equipped to help the town. However, he meets a legendary ex-samurai (Samuel L. Jackson) who agrees to show him the ways on becoming a hero.
I wish I could say the movie was well animated but I simply can’t. This is as cheap as cheap animation gets, and given its only $45 million budget, I can’t expect it to be anything close to Pixar quality. That said, I do have to give credit to the filmmakers for mixing up the styles once in a while. At certain points things go from bad CG to interesting comic book aesthetics when things go into flashbacks. If only they did this the whole movie.
As far as vocal performances are concerned, I found myself slightly impressed that Michael Cera and Samuel L. Jackson don’t phone it in. They’re adequately satisfactory in their cliched
Po/Sifu student/master roles. And the characters do have a nice, fitting chemistry to them, so you somewhat enjoy seeing their friendship develop. You also enjoy the antics of Kylie Kuioka’s Emiko — a kitten who’s more competent with steel than any other characters in the movie.
Less pleasant though is the lazy performance from Ricky Gervais. Based on his flat deliveries and lack of any sort of intonation, you can tell he cares about this project about as much as hosting the Golden Globes, but without any of the humor. He’s horribly miscast, but then again, in a movie that culturally appropriates samurai films with White voice actors, so is essentially everyone else.
From a thematic perspective, there are some good lessons for kids. Though the satire is less biting than Blazing Saddles, the idea of the main character Hank being discriminated against for being a dog, but ultimately winning the approval of the town does come with a great message about tolerance. It also includes some good messages about believing in yourself and embracing your differences as strengths. So at least there’s that.
And from a story perspective, adapting Blazing Saddles allows for the movie to at least have a coherent story that’s not a random string of skits and gags like so many other kids movies. And from a humor perspective, it’s nice that it tries to pay homage to some of the most classic jokes from the original movie, such as the horse punching scene, the fake town, and the classic beans and gas scene. Unfortunately, it’s sort of like witnessing someone reenacting scenes from your favorite movie, but not as well. Still better than overloading the movie exclusively with bad potty humor.
The biggest gripe I have though is that, like similar movies such as Kung Fu Panda, this is definitely a movie written by White screenwriters, directed by White directors, and starring the voices of Caucasian men, which exploits samurai tropes from Japanese culture to rip off a Mel Brooks classic. So that was pretty offensive to me on a few levels. At least with Kung Fu Panda, you had Jackie Chan, James Hong, and Lucy Liu representing Chinese culture in major roles in a franchise that utilizes the idea of Kung Fu (and were better films overall). But Paws of Fury barely attempts to do the same for Japanese culture. Only two cast members appear to be of Japanese descent: George Takei and newcomer Kuioka.
But Takei doesn’t have a major role, playing a character subservient to Gervais’, and though Kuioka is a scene stealer, she’s still supporting to Cera and Jackson. Additionally, the fact that they added Michelle Yeoh to the film feels like White executives thinking they’re being respectful of Asian cultures even though they’re unable to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese actors. But because these are cats and dogs, they think they don’t have to worry about these sorts of things. And that to me feels like both a cheat, and the work of executives washing their hands of accountability. I mean would it really hurt them to try harder to do better by at least even casting some Japanese actors in Cera or Jackson, or even flat Gervais’ roles?
Regardless, those gripes are all from the POC perspective. And at the end of the day, kids won’t know or care who the voices are behind the funny cartoon characters on screen. And if they do ultimately drag you parents to see it, at minimum, the movie tries to tell a story with a wink and a nod. The Mel Brooks ties do hinder the film in the sense that you can comparably see which one is inferior, but they also help the film by giving it an amusing sense of wit at times. At the end of the day, Paws of Fury knows what it is; a short cartoon that will amuse the kids for 87 minutes on a summer day. The good news is at least you don’t have to suffer too much while sitting next to them.
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): C+
Overall Score (on a representation level): D