Genre: CG Animation
Director: Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey
Cast: Michael Cera, Ricky Gervais, Mel Brooks, George Takei, Aasif Mandvi, Gabriel Iglesias, Djimon Hounsou, Michelle Yeoh, Kylie Kuioka, Cathy Shim, Samuel L. Jackson
Runtime: 1 hr 38 mins
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 21 July 2022
Synopsis: A hard-on-his-luck hound Hank (Michael Cera) finds himself in a town full of cats who need a hero to defend them from a ruthless villain's (Ricky Gervais) evil plot to wipe their village off the map. With help from a reluctant teacher (Samuel L. Jackson) to train him, our underdog must assume the role of town samurai and team up with the villagers to save the day.
We’re not sure who came up with the idea of turning Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western parody ‘Blazing Saddles’ into an animated comedy, but we can tell you that the result is less than inspired, even as it credits all (five!) writers of that landmark film.
Whereas the Brooks’ satire confronted racial prejudice head-on by putting a Black sheriff in a White frontier town, ‘Paws of Fury’ decidedly avoids that controversy by substituting the characters with… cats and dogs. So it is in our version that the hero is a naïve pup named Hank (Michael Cera), who is unwittingly sent by the nefarious Somali cat official Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) to the fictional feline village of Kakamucho to be its samurai defender.
Not surprisingly, as skeptical as both he and the town are as of his own abilities, Hank eventually transforms into the town’s underdog (pun intended), in no small part to the retired master Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson) that Hank signs a contract with to be his teacher. Besides Jimbo, Hank finds an unexpected ally in foe-turned-friend Sumo (Djimon Hounsou), a giant, dim-witted tabby cat that Ika had sent to drive the people of Kakamucho out sooner.
In case it isn’t obvious, Ika wants the town gone, seeing it as not only an eyesore but also an obstacle to his plan to expand his palace. Besides Sumo, Ika will terrorise the townspeople with two rounds of invasion led by Ohga (George Takei), a muscular Manx cat. It is on the latter offensive that Ika and his thugs will be confronted by the visiting Shogun (Brooks), a British shorthair who proves to be a lot more empathetic than Ika’s rule over the town would suggest.
Even with breaking the fourth wall with meta-gags about Hank’s obligatory training montage or the length of the movie (only 85 mins!), the script is only intermittently funny. Some jokes deliberately reference that from Brooks’ film, albeit retooled to cut down the outdated references or obscenity; others seem improvised on the fly, like Jackson’s thinly veiled reference to the Force. Thankfully, there are those which are still good for a few hearty laughs, like how the Shogun communicates to Ika through a long line of cats playing telephone and its frequent use of ‘toilet humour’ (mind you, it gets as literal as Ika obsessing over a giant jade toilet bowl known as the Super Bowl).
To veteran co-director Rob Minkoff’s credit though, there are sequences of ingenuity amidst the largely assembly-line animation. The flashbacks explaining Hank’s wanna-be samurai origins or Jimbo’s fall from grace are vividly rendered; ditto the traditional Japanese illustrations that mark the opening credits. The voice cast also elevates the material, especially a spry Brooks as the aloof Shogun, a perfectly sarcastic Gervais as the villainous Ika Chu and a signature Jackson as the cynical sensei Jimbo; though other star talent like Michelle Yeoh, Takei, Assif Mandvi and Gabriel Iglesias are somewhat under-used given the limited time their characters have.
Admittedly, you could do a lot worse than ‘Paws of Fury’ if you were looking for something to kill time with the kids; and yet, seeing as how it draws from a 1974 Brooks classic, as well as boasting an impressive voice ensemble, it is hardly surprising that one would be expecting more. It doesn’t help too that Hank is nowhere near as adorable or endearing as Po from ‘Kung Fu Panda’, which this martial arts animation will inevitably draw comparisons with, so before you saddle up, we urge you to set your expectations right, just so you won’t feel after that you’ve been taken for a ride.
(Good for an afternoon to kill time with the kids and little more, this animated comedy inspired by Mel Brooks' 1974 landmark Western parody is too tame for its own good)
Review by Gabriel Chong