There’s no denying that the world’s children are yet again in the grips of Minions-mania, with Minions: The Rise of Gru already ranking among the highest global grossers of the year. Compared to this global juggernaut, or to the expensive productions typically offered by Disney and Pixar, the new Nickelodeon-branded animated film Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank looks like a direct-to-video leftover from 2005, like an off-brand combo ripoff of Zootopia and Kung Fu Panda. It’s a surprise to see it playing in movie theaters at all. Yet this cheap, dumb cartoon does offer something this summer’s other family animation offerings have largely avoided: a barrage of actual jokes.
It’s not that The Rise of Gru has loftier aims than making its target audience laugh. But its success reveals just how thoroughly Illumination, its parent studio, has managed to shift expectations about what constitutes comedy in a children’s film. On its surface, Rise of Gru looks like an heir to the inspired anarchy of old Looney Tunes, and it has a few moments that hit those heights. But for the most part, the Illumination brand of comedy involves mashing together silly behavior, filler lines that sarcastically comment on the action without making an actual joke, and goofy poses. Why do the Minions take kung fu lessons at one point in The Rise of Gru? For the same reason that so many animated movies end with dance parties: Because kids like it when cartoon characters bust familiar moves.
There’s nothing wrong with occupying children for 90 minutes. Yet there is something welcome and soothing about the way Paws of Fury links together puns, sight gags, one-liners, and self-referential spoofs. Even if some of them — many, even! — induce groans in adults, the sheer volume of actual jokes becomes impressive, particularly in the film’s opening and closing stretches. The middle is admittedly thin.
But even so, at least the movie has a more workable storyline than either Minions movie has managed. In a Japan/Old West hybrid populated mostly by cats, nefarious feline Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) seeks to destroy the local village from the inside by sending wannabe samurai Hank (Michael Cera) to serve as their protector. Ika Chu assumes the village folk won’t accept Hank because he’s a dog. Undeterred by the town’s prejudice and his own inexperience, Hank seeks the assistance of reluctant mentor Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson) to help him save the town from hired-gun bandits, and defeat Ika Chu to boot.
That plot may sound familiar to classic comedy fans, because it’s straight out of the 1974 Mel Brooks Western spoof Blazing Saddles. As a Brooks character might cheerfully point out in a meta moment, Paws of Fury came by the storyline legally: Original Blazing Saddles writers Brooks, Richard Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger, and Norman Steinberg all have screenplay credits on Paws of Fury, because it was originally conceived as an animated remake called Blazing Samurai. The title has been changed, but Brooks’ spirit remains.
Granted, it’s more the spirit of late-period Brooks. Think of the moment in 1993’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights when Dave Chappelle’s character, Ahchoo, is appointed sheriff. “A Black sheriff?!” one character gasps. “Why not?” Ahchoo answers. “It worked in Blazing Saddles!” Plenty of jokes in Paws of Fury are on that approximate level, minus the mention of race. The cats’ derision toward dogs is coded xenophobia, played more as a parable of an immigrant’s experience, rather than a specifically American form of racism. It’s neither particularly subtle nor particularly insightful, and it’s made murkier via a Japanese-inflected setting that (presumably unintentionally) adds a racial wrinkle back into a movie that has carefully excised its predecessor’s boldest element.
The switch from cowboys to samurai also makes Paws of Fury far less of a genre parody, because neither Brooks nor the younger filmmakers who actually made this movie seem especially interested in the dynamics of a samurai movie. This is an all-purpose spoof, with specific nods to older, American, mostly unrelated films like West Side Story and Star Wars. Make no mistake: This is no substitute for Blazing Saddles. Even older children would be more interested in Brooks’ Spaceballs, a 1987 Star Wars spoof that, while funny, is similarly broad and not especially well-versed in the genre it’s goofing on.
Yet there is value in a silly kids’ cartoon that cares enough to string together a series of gags. So many big-studio cartoons just engineer busy, noisy set-pieces, with slapstick blown up to a blockbuster scale. But in Paws of Fury, most of the jokes feel like mischievous throwaways, training kids’ ears for comedy rather than numbing them with junior-level spectacle. There are ridiculous cat puns galore. There’s some knowingly absurd, anachronistic dialogue. (When one character lists “cars and curiosity” as prominent killers of cats, another asks, “What are cars?” prompting an inevitable scolding for his curiosity.) And the characters repeatedly reference how the movie needs to run “85 minutes, not including end credits.”
Brooks himself shares this wisdom, in his small role as, uh, the Shogun. Is it bad taste to have him play a Japanese character? Almost certainly. Is the animation as sleek and professional as the technique displayed in Lightyear? Not even close. The best it can do is look somewhat less hideous than it does in the haphazardly cut trailers. Under normal circumstances, there would be plenty of reasons to skip a passable amusement like Paws of Fury. But this summer, when kid-targeted movies have felt like brands searching for either a grown-up emotional hook (as with Pixar’s Lightyear) or comic set-pieces that rarely coalesce (as with The Rise of Gru), the plot-plus-jokes simplicity of Paws starts to feel downright lovable.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is now playing in theaters.