Director: Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier, Chris Bailey Screenwriter: Ed Stone, Nate Hopper Cast: Michael Cera, Ricky Gervais, Mel Brooks, George Takei, Aasif Mandvi, Gabriel Iglesias, Djimon Hounsou, Michelle Yeoh, Samuel L. Jackson Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 97 min. MPAA: PG

Many years ago, this animated action-comedy was called Blazing Samurai. If that title sounds close to Blazing Saddles, that was intentional. The classic Western comedy was being tranformed into an animated kid-friendly picture. And though it changed titles to seem less obvious, the remake angle is incredibly blunt. So, yes, they remade Blazing Saddles in the safest way possible.

The premise essentially replaces racism with specism, ala Zootopia. Japan is ruled by anthropomorphic cats that descriminate against anhropomorphic dogs. Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) is a pompous official who rules over his region with a massive ego. Eager to wipe a neighboring town off the map, he plans to gift them a samurai defender they will not except. And since everybody discrimates against dogs in this world, the dog prisoner Hank (Michael Cera) is given the job.

If that setup sounds similar to Blazing Saddles, wait until you hear the dialogue. There are many passages that are nearly word-for-word citations of the original Mel Brooks script. Such familiar lines as “Why am I asking you?” are present. Even the whole “The sherrif is a–” interupting gag is present, sans the racial slur. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Thankfully, the film has a handful of original touches. Hank is trained by the down-and-out samurai Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson) and there’s more a student-teacher dynamic than the buddy aspect of Blazing Saddles. You’ll still get a drunk Jimbo stumbling around regretting his career of violence but with a sillier edge. Whisky? No, that bottle is filled with…cat nip. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The comedy finds a better groove when it breaks the fourth wall. There’s a bit of a refreshing angle when characters comment on titles and are aware of certain tropes. It’s an aspect of the knowing nature present in Blazing Saddles that is present here more as a spiritual tribute than a literal representation. There’s even some decent gags about cats not knowing about curiosity and cars in this Japanese period adventure.

Yet there are so many aspects that feel held back. What’s even the point of casting a talent actor like Michelle Yeoh if she’s going to be wasted? I couldn’t help but feel she was meant to play a temptress hired by the villain and that her scenes were cut to remove the sexuality from this picture. After all, the plot does feature a beast in the form of the towering sumo wrestling cat known as Sumo (Djimon Hounsou). You even have Mel Brooks himself reprising the same role of authority as the ruling Shogun. At least his lines are somewhat different, tapping his other films with such lines as “It’s good to be the shogun.”

Surprisingly, the animation style is quite vibrant and brimming fast-paced excitement. The flashback sequences are beautifully staged with this comic-book style shading and sharp colors that make them look crisp and dynamic. The fight sequences are clever enough for a film that wants to keep that PG rating while still wielding swords. Even some of the Flintstones-style humor of toilets and dance clubs are decently staged for the absurdity.

Paws of Fury tries too hard to duplicate Blazing Saddles but has its sparse moments of originality that work rather well. At the very least, the film carries a bold statement of not being descriminatory. Not exactly the most original of messages, considering there was a similar animated film about stereotypes with The Bad Guys, but a strong message worth reiterating. For being a film trying to hold an allegory of anti-racism and still be an entertaining adventure in its own right, most of this works.

The adults might get a handful of smirks and giggles at how many Blazing Saddles references are woven into this picture. The kids will appreciate the slapstick of swords, toilets, and farts. Hopefully when those young ones grow up, they’ll discover the mature version of this same story in the original Mel Brooks film.

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