Some pitch meetings you really do wish you could have been a fly on the conference table. “OK, guys, are you sitting down? ‘Blazing Saddles’ — animated! The sheriff’s a samurai, so instead of a western it’s a samurai movie — but it still feels like a western! Oh, and the samurai’s a dog, with every other character a cat!”
There you have “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” Hank being the samurai canine in question. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? In fact, “Paws” is lively, clever, and quite good fun. No less of an authority than Mel Brooks would seem to agree. The director and co-writer of “Blazing Saddles” (1974) reprises his role from the earlier movie, sort of, since this time he’s a shogun instead of a territorial governor. As he says in one of the film’s stream of splendidly shameless puns, “There’s no business like shogun business.”
The shogun’s adviser is named Ika Chu (voiced by a perfectly cast Ricky Gervais). That name is the first of several Pokémon jokes. There are also origami jokes, sliding-screen jokes, hairball jokes, spaying and neutering jokes, pet-door jokes, dog-training jokes, catnip jokes, acupuncture jokes, and, yes, the two most famous jokes from “Blazing Saddles” get reworked. On second thought, maybe that should be infamous.
Many viewers won’t even know that something called “Blazing Saddles” exists. You don’t need any familiarity with the Brooks original to enjoy “Paws of Fury.” Certainly none of the kids it’s intended for, or mostly intended for, will know anything about it. But “Blazing Saddles” fans will enjoy this quite-enjoyable movie that much more.
Back to Ika Chu. He wants to be the next shogun. To insure the incumbent’s choosing him, he wants to get rid of a town named Kakmuchu that . . . oh, never mind why. What matters is that this version of Japan does not allow canines. (Think of “Paws of Fury” as the anti-”Isle of Dogs.”) So when the village requests that a samurai be sent to protect it, Ika Chu chooses Hank (Michael Cera). Hank is a scaredy-cat, so to speak. Scorned by the residents, he enlists the help of a washed-up samurai, Jimbo, who’s voiced by Samuel L. Jackson. Does casting come any better? Getting to hear the words “You’re harshing my mellow” spoken by that particular voice justifies the rest of the movie, not that it needs justifying.
Other voice talent includes George Takei, as Ika Chu’s genial dim-bulb assistant, Ohga; Djimon Hounsou, as a very large cat named Sumo (the equivalent of Mongo in the original); and Michelle Yeoh (yay!), who exhorts her fellow Kakmuchu residents, “We must stand on our own four legs and fight!”
“Paws,” as you might expect, is very self-aware. It doesn’t so much ignore the fourth wall as cover it with graffiti. Have you ever seen a movie that makes a joke about its own running time? There are songs (one of the lyrics rhymes “shogun” with “blowgun”). Visually, the movie is surprisingly inventive, with takeoffs on everything from manga to Hokusai prints. Sure, a lot of the jokes are dumb — you got a problem with that? — but “Paws” is quite smart. Clearly, all concerned considered it a pet project. They were right to do so.
PAWS OF FURY: THE LEGEND OF HANK
Directed by Chris Bailey, Mark Koetsier, Rob Minkoff. Written by Ed Stone and Nate Hopper; based on characters created by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger. Featuring the voices of Michael Cera, Samuel L. Jackson, Ricky Gervais, Mel Brooks, George Takei, Djimon Hounsou, Michelle Yeoh. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 103 minutes. PG (action, violence, rude and suggestive humor, some language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.