It’s not every day that you get to see Richard Pryor listed as one of the screenwriters of a new movie. That’s because Pryor died in 2005. But when I saw his name credited among the seven writers of “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” it gave me an unreasonable jolt of optimism. If you’re wondering what Pryor’s name is doing on a computer-animated comedy about a samurai canine, it’s because the script is credited to Ed Stone and Nate Hopper — and also to Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger, and Pryor, who were the five screenwriters of “Blazing Saddles,” the landmark Mel Brooks Western comedy that came out in 1974.
“Paws of Fury” was originally entitled “Blazing Samurai,” because it recycles (sort of) the premise of “Blazing Saddles,” a movie Brooks originally wanted to make with Pryor as its star. He was set to play a railroad worker who becomes the first Black sheriff of Rock Ridge — all as part of a scheme by the attorney general to cause chaos in the town, so that he can take it over (a new railroad is going to make the place worth millions). But Warner Bros. didn’t want the sly-eyed Pryor, who could fire off one-liners like bullets from a Gatling gun, to star in a comedy about the Wild West’s first Black sheriff. The executives knew he was box office, but thought that he was too dangerous. (The studio claimed that his history of drug arrests made Pryor uninsurable, an excuse belied by his subsequent vast career as a Hollywood superstar.) So they went instead for the safe, genial Cleavon Little (who, it should be said, did a fine job).
The screenplay credit on “Paws of Fury” must have been the result of one notably strange and memorable WGA arbitration, since the movie, apart from its rather convoluted plot premise, would never make anyone think of “Blazing Saddles.” That movie was naughty and bawdy; this one is tame and innocuous even by the standards of animated comedies for 9-year-olds. And “Blazing Saddles,” in its vaudeville-on-peyote-with-flatulence way, was a movie that generated comic shocks by touching the third rail of American racial politics. In “Paws of Fury,” Hank (voiced by Michael Cera), a beagle of doofy sincerity, gets chosen to be the samurai defender of Kakamucho, a town inhabited entirely by cats. They do not like dogs, and therefore don’t like Hank. But Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais), a warmongering Somali cat, is counting on their rejection; it’s all part of his plot to destroy the town.
Hank, of course, will ultimately win over the feline residents of Kakamucho (in addition to learning to wield a samurai sword with slashing finesse). That counts, I guess, as a lesson about prejudice, but it’s not one that’s especially stirring or noteworthy or funny. “Paws of Fury” is an efficient yet underimagined animated fable that barely musters the flavor of a cliché Western comedy. Mel Brooks, who is one of the film’s executive producers, has a voice role — he’s the Shogun, who says things like “There’s no business like Shogun business.” One wants to cut the great Mel, who’s 96, some slack, but that’s a line your grandfather probably wouldn’t have laughed at, and too much of the humor in “Paws of Fury” is like that. The jokes get coughed up and sit there, like furballs on the carpet.
For all the “Blazing Saddles”-in-kiddie-drag hype, the more obvious source “Paws of Fury” borrows from is “Kung Fu Panda” and its two sequels. But those movies are powered by Jack Black’s whirligig enthusiasm and suburban-couch-potato sweetness (his Po is the rare animated hero, like Buzz Lightyear, who’s awesome and ridiculous at the same moment). They’re high-flying action comedies with a fast and stinging wit. Michael Cera can be a stinging nerd himself, but in “Paws of Fury” he voices Hank with a stubbornly mild and sheepish personality. At one point, after he has commenced his fight training with Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson), his tuxedo cat sensei and general task master, Hank enjoys a moment of overinflated ego, where he starts babbling about how he’s a master samurai now — and as preposterous as that is, it’s a delusion he wears well. That could have been a way to play the character: as the Good Dog Who Would Be Badass. But Cera soon snaps back to his unprepossessing sideline-geek personality, leaving “Paws of Fury” as a kiddie cartoon in search of a center.
Some of the other voice actors are better, like Jackson, who makes his lines pop with addled glee, and Ricky Gervais, who voices the villainous Ika Chu with an upside-down logic reminiscent of Russell Brand, or Djimon Hounsou as Sumo, the giant ginger cat warrior who, beneath that wall of fur, is as innocent as, yes, a pussycat. But “Paws of Fury” never figures out how to make the fighting itself a comic spectacle. The movie has three directors — Rob Minkoff, who co-directed “The Lion King” and went on to make the overly slapstick rambunctious “Stuart Little” films, plus Chris Bailey and Mark Koetsier, neither of whom has made a feature before — and apart from the too-many-cooks factor, you get the feeling that the whole premise of this project was that the script, with its “Blazing Saddles” mystique, would somehow power it. But sorry, those fumes faded out across the decades.