Finding our true purpose and path in life isn’t easy. Many struggle, wandering aimlessly from one profession and/or relationship to another. It requires maturity and some experience to see your way forward. I don’t know what I’m talking about as I have lucked into both my career and my marriage. A mutual friend set me up while in college on my first date with who would become my wife. Also, while I was majoring in Broadcasting: Production and Performance (a useless bachelor’s degree), I thought one day, I’d be a morning radio personality in a big city, entertaining my audience and raking in a huge paycheck. It took a few years, but I learned I’m neither talented nor funny enough for anyone to hire in a small town, much less a huge metropolis. The small station I was working at suggested I take on some extra office responsibilities, like scheduling the commercials and printing out the daily log all the announcers used to know what spots to play when. It wasn’t difficult as we had very few paying clients, but it was valuable experience. Over the years, I’ve worked in slightly larger stations in the same community and have been in my current position since 1995. The job was originally offered to my wife, who worked parttime at the same station, but she wasn’t interested in an office job. She told me about it and the rest is history. My life has been little more than a series of accidental “right places at the right times” events. The hero in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” also stumbles into an opportunity to prove his worth and make his mark on a small part of the world. He also is in a dull, depressing and only mildly funny animated film.
Hank (voiced by Michael Cera) is a dog looking for a place to belong. He’s bullied in his hometown, saved by a samurai, and journeys to a village across the sea to learn to be a samurai. Because this land is populated by cats, he’s arrested and thrown in the dungeon of the local leader Ika Chu (voiced by Ricky Gervais) as dogs are not allowed. Ika Chu has big plans to impress the Shogun (voiced by Mel Brooks) with the beauty and splendor of his castle but sees the nearby village of Kakamucho as ruining the view and sends his guards, led by Ohga (voiced by George Takei), to scare off the residents and raze the buildings to the ground. As the guards approach, Kakamucho’s samurai runs away. Not knowing Ika Chu sent the marauders, a request for a new samurai is sent to him. Just before Hank is to be executed, Ika Chu spares him and makes Hank the town’s samurai. No one likes him as he arrives since dogs are not allowed and he doesn’t know anything about being a samurai. In the samurai’s headquarters, Hank discovers a prisoner named Jimbo (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) who is drunk on catnip. Jimbo is a former samurai who failed his master and gave up the life. Hank asks Jimbo to train him in the ways of the samurai so he can defend Kakamucho and learn to have confidence in himself.
Watching “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” I noticed some similarities to Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” For one, the local leader is trying to run out the residents in a town for his own benefit. There’s also a giant character that seems unbeatable defeated by a small weakness. There are other things reminding me of Brooks’ classic satire of Western films. According to the movie’s page on Wikipedia, it is loosely based on his 1974 comedy. Brooks’ company, Brooksfilms, is credited as one of the seven (yes, seven) production companies responsible for making the film. Brooks is also credited as one of the seven (again, seven) writers of the screenplay. I’m assuming many of the jokes that sounded familiar to ones from other Brooks’ films were contributed by the now 96-year-old comedy legend. I was glad to have something funny to laugh at as the film has many long stretches where not much humorous happens.
As with many other films where a character must learn skills he lacks, this movie has some extensive training montages where Hank is beaten with poles, slapped by bent trees and is slammed into a boulder over and over again. There are fights before he’s trained where more of the same happens. Jimbo tells him repeatedly he’ll never be a samurai and that he’s too stupid to learn. While it’s a family film, and the two eventually become friends, “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is dark and a little depressing. Hank has been abused in his former home and is rejected and abused in his new one. There are moments where I wanted to give up and exit the theater as the film was such a bummer. While animated films have made me cry (I’m looking at you, “Toy Story 3”), they usually instill far more joy. “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” relentlessly beats the dog down for at least the first half of the film. Of course, like his real-world counterparts, Hank the dog never gives up and keeps coming back for more abuse. That also struck me as sad.
There is also a bit of racism in the film. The setting of the film is supposed to suggest feudal Japan; hence, all the cats are assumed to be Asian. Hank, being a dog, is from another land across the sea, so the assumption is he’s European, aka white. He overcomes the hatred and distrust of the locals and plays a big part in defeating the villain and saving the day. Many films over the course of history have used the outsider as the savior of a native group under threat. “Avatar,” “Dances with Wolves,” “The Blind Side,” “Gran Torino,” “Green Book,” and countless other movies make us of what’s called the “white savior” trope. Replacing humans with a dog and cats does nothing to erase how the villagers need the outsider to save them. Being a CGI-animated kids film lessens the impact but doesn’t eliminate it entirely. The target audience won’t notice it at all, while their parents probably won’t care. Still, it’s there.
“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is rated PG for action, violence, rude and suggestive humor, and some language. The cartoon violence is silly and won’t disturb most children. Hank, as noted earlier, is beat up and slammed around for most of the film. There are also a couple of scenes where characters are shot with an arrow in the hand and foot. There are also sword fights but no blood. A flood threatens the village and puts several child characters in danger. Ika Chu is mean to everyone around him. A giant cat called Sumo wears a traditional sumo wrestler’s outfit that shows his buttocks, leading to a character being stuck between them. A food allergy is used as a weapon to defeat an enemy. There is a lengthy scene were multiple characters pass gas and a few lights the gas on fire. Foul language is limited to words like “moron,” “imbeciles,” “idiot,” brainless,” “loser,” and “dimwit.” Samuel L. Jackson’s character does a variation on his popular “MF” phrase that is safe for children.
If it weren’t for several recycled jokes from Mel Brooks movies, I don’t think I could have tolerated “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” at all. While the animation is fine and the voice acting is good, the overall tone of the film is dour. There aren’t enough laughs to keep it from feeling longer than its 97 minutes (that includes a lengthy opening and closing credits, plus a brief post-credits scene), and it isn’t visually stunning to keep the mind occupied while you wait for it to end. I was in a sparsely attended Saturday matinee with a couple of families with kids. The movie didn’t hold the youngster’s attention enough to keep them from chatting throughout. They seemed to laugh and enjoy it, but I doubt their parents were entertained enough to justify the cost of tickets and concessions. The youngest of children might find the movie interesting, but their parents will not.
“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” gets two stars out of five.
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