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‘Paws of Fury’ is a cuddlier ‘Blazing Saddles’ with talking animals

Breezy yet baffling animated reimagining of the 1974 western satire lacks bite

Hank (left, voice of Michael Cera) and Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson) in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank.” (Paramount Pictures)
(2 stars)

“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is one mutt of a movie. If reimagining 1974’s western parody “Blazing Saddles” as a cuddly, computer-animated spoof of samurai movies sounds like a misguided idea, well, that’s because it is one.

Where “Blazing Saddles” confronted prejudice head-on, putting a Black sheriff in a narrow-minded, White frontier town, “Paws” takes the bite out of the earlier film’s satire by populating 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 he’s tasked with protecting the feline population of the fictional village of Kakamucho.

Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey co-direct a new screenplay credited not just 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 over Kakamucho (riffing on his role as the governor in “Blazing Saddles”). Yet this animated homage feels more hollow than honest, parroting the story beats and comedic stylings of “Saddles” without any of its subversive humor. Logical for a kid’s movie? Yes, but still jarring.

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Setting aside the puzzling marriage of source material and medium, “Paws” at least makes for a breezy summertime diversion. Contrived but cute, the movie deserves credit for its indictment of insularity, as well as a few hearty laughs — all while clocking in at a scant 90 minutes, not counting the closing credits or the short film that plays before the feature.

That doesn’t leave a lot of time to flesh out characters, though it’s not for a lack of trying. Filling the Gene Wilder role from “Saddles,” an amusing Samuel L. Jackson voices Jimbo, a tuxedo cat who was once an esteemed samurai but now drinks away his sorrows with a catnip brew. Ricky Gervais is on autopilot as Ika Chu, the diabolical Somali cat who wants to perfect the view from his palace by wiping Kakamucho off the map. Djimon Hounsou speaks with a sluggish timbre as the oversized goon 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 of becoming a samurai.

The fourth-wall-shattering shtick — a defining trait of “Saddles” — is most successful when trafficking in silly sight gags. (“Where did that come from?” one character asks after crashing into the movie’s opening title. “The title department,” another dutifully responds.) But lazy nods to the voice cast’s past projects and public personas are likely to produce more eye-rolling than entertainment. Of course George Takei, as Ika Chu’s absent-minded lieutenant, is going to blurt out his endlessly memed catchphrase, “Oh my!” But do we need it twice? Having Star Wars alum Jackson make a thinly veiled reference to the Force feels equally ham-handed.

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Although the assembly-line animation is mostly uninspiring, there are flashes of ingenuity. The pencil-sketched imagery of the opening credits — accompanied by a song referencing the movie’s original title, “Blazing Samurai” — is striking. The same goes for the shadowy, noirish filter laid over flashback sequences that explain Hank’s wannabe-samurai origins and Jimbo’s comical fall from grace. A grainy Godzilla parody makes for a welcome visual respite as well.

For little ones oblivious to this movie’s inspiration, the rote character arcs and commendable morals should land just fine. And “Paws of Fury” does occasionally get its claws out with pointed observations about gun control, xenophobia and irrational intolerance. (“It just feels right to hate,” one cat casually muses.) Such barbs, however, get lost in a barrage of fart jokes and inane action. In the end, alas, this noisy spectacle is more bark than bite.

PG. At area theaters. Contains action, violence, rude and suggestive humor, and some strong language. 102 minutes.

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