By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
When I walked into a showing for “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” I was thinking, right, “paws of fury” equals “fists of fury.” Hank is Bruce Lee, and he’s even wearing a yellow robe. But actually, the movie, released to theaters July 15, isn’t “Fists of Fury”—it’s “Blazing Saddles.”
If you recall “Blazing Saddles” or have ever watched it (and it has aged quite well), it came out in 1979, and was directed by Mel Brooks, who also starred as the governor. The story follows a Black sheriff assigned to a white town, contains blatant racism people were known for at the time (and are still known for), and asks, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
It was bold for its time, for any time, and managed to bring up uncomfortable truths without, I think, being offensive. It was real and, as Brooks has stated himself, the film is ultimately about love. The love that the sheriff had to have to continue to fight for the people who hated him (but changed their ways).
“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” put out by Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies, and “a bunch of other guys too numerous to mention” say the opening credits, takes place in a world (country? province?) where only cats live (read “white people). There are dogs somewhere, some other place (read “people of color”) but they are not allowed in the land of cats. An evil bigwig, Ika Chu (voiced to a tee by Ricky Gervais), would like the quaint adorable small town next to his palace to disappear so he can have a better view to show the shogun (voiced by Brooks) when he visits. Right here, I immediately thought of “The Emperor’s New Groove” and my brain started tripping down that path—but that’s not where we were going.
After a few failed attempts, Ika Chu lands on the scheme of sending a dog sheriff to take over, certain that the town will kill Hank, and then Ika Chu will have an excuse to demolish the town. Of course, this doesn’t happen. Hank, a bumbling wannabe warrior at the beginning, endures the displeasure of the town, while training with has-been samurai, Jimbo (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), and falling in love with those in his care. He has some lessons to learn along the way, mainly about pride; and the town has lessons to learn about racism.
I’m just glossing over here, but “Legend of Hank” is scene for scene and character for character a “Blazing Saddles” remake. Brooks is in the same prominent role (now as shogun), and also produced and helped to write the screenplay. Hank, of course, is the sheriff of color—and this is the only place I found a possible other “Fists of Fury” reference, as in that movie, Lee’s hero is scornfully told that if he can “act like a dog,” he will be let into the park where “Chinese and dogs” are not allowed. Jimbo is “Jim,” who was played by the irrepressibly glowing Gene Wilder, and Ika Chu’s evil twin is “Hedley Lamarr,” who was played by Harvey Korman.
The movie is full of Brooks’ typical campy humor, from the tongue-in-cheek comment in the opening credits to the fact that the adorable little town is called “Kakamucho” (just say it out loud). The innuendos are appropriately toned down for kids (“Blazing Saddles” has a lot of sexual content as per that “other” “Wild West”), although the song in the closing credits shocked me a bit with lines like “he’s the best at chasing tail” and “he has the biggest sword”—ahem. I figured by then no one but me was paying attention anyway.
There is also a lot of use of the fourth wall, which is a Brooks trademark. In “Blazing Saddles,” the fighting at the end falls out of the movie screen into the audience. Here, too, the sumo wrestler (voiced by George Takei and twinned with “Mongo”) takes a similar tumble. The soundtrack, by Bear McCreary, is good. There is one song in the middle that is beautiful and sad with lyrics like “Why did you believe in me?” Probably it’s a silly complaint when we are happy for more Asian and Asian American representation, but it bugged me that Michelle Yeoh’s accent was not Japanese (I know, the town is made up, but it is clearly made up to be like Japan). Why can’t we take it further and instead of just “Asian” get someone with the correct origination? Once you go down that road, it gets tangled, though (or super simple, actually). Samuel L. Jackson is not Japanese. Nor Ricky Gervais, etc. But I digress.
It’s time to get back to the message, which is important, but I wonder to whom?
Throughout the movie, I kept wondering, who is this message of peace and love between people of different colors, different backgrounds, aimed at? First of all, let me say that I think it’s an honorable effort on Brooks’ part, to reprise the hope from “Blazing Saddles” that we can all get along, to update that, and to bring it into the 21st century, when we still very much need it. But this is an animated movie for children—so is the message for children? I tend to think that kids will easily “get it” or already get it. Prevailing psychological data tells us that no one is born racist. Kids learn to be racist from grownups. And I have a tough time thinking that the grownups who actually need to hear this message will understand. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but I really wonder if anyone already so closed-minded will make the leap from “those are cats and dogs” and this is a cartoon to “those are people of two different races” and this is real.
That said, “Paws of Fury: Legend of Hank” is a charming film, entertaining, and it’s a lot of fun picking out the allusions to Brooks’ earlier masterpiece (some are quite obvious, such as the “blazing” arrow Hank shoots at the end)—but it doesn’t matter so much to the audience (I’m sure it matters to Brooks) if you’ve never seen the earlier movie and just enjoy this humor on its own. The film might not blow your mind, and it might not change anything, unless the change comes from kids who go home and tell their parents, you know, we should all just get along.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.