8/10 For several years, “you couldn’t make a Mel Brooks movie today” has been a common refrain among people who think American culture has gotten too sensitive, with arguments particularly revolving around his 1974 classic Blazing Saddles, which slung racial slurs like breakfast joints sling pancakes in many of its most iconic moments. Well, Mel Brooks has made a movie today, particularly an animated Blazing Saddles remake called Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank. We get to see and know what that looks like.
In a land inspired by feudal Japan inhabited entirely by cats, a Somali lord called Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) desperately wants to seize property in village of Kakamucho, and only one thing stands in his way: the rightful owners. After failing to scare out or drive the townsfolk off by hiring mercenaries to wreck the place, he tries a legal option, assigning a beagle scheduled for execution called Hank (Michael Cera), someone who so offends the citizens of Kakamucho that his very appearance may drive them out of town, as the town’s new samurai. Set up to fail against these prejudices, Hank trains to fulfill his role under a new sensei, Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson).
Paws of Fury transitions from an R-rated tour of racism so explicit that many argue it couldn’t be released today to a PG-rated cartoon about talking animals with celebrity voices with astonishing grace, and it gains as much as it loses along the way. The key mentality co-directors Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey seem to have taken was to not try to just re-do everything. Where Blazing Saddles was about dialogue and editing, Paws of Fury is about cartoon logic and genre gags. The real mentality of Blazing Saddles, which is to strafe viewers with joke after joke until they don’t know which way is up, is completely intact.
Represented through cats’ hatred of dogs, the picture knocks the depiction of racism out of the park, too, with many of the same moments of cats privately accepting Hank once he starts to establish himself.
The obvious question cross-referencing the two is whether or not Blazing Saddles was really this juvenile, and the obvious answer is “yes.” That movie is a blitz of associative language jokes, dick jokes, fart noises and Looney Tunes gags, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that so much is left when the adult content is gone.
Paws of Fury is far from a repeat of its legendary source material. The jokes aren’t quite as potent, and I think this is a matter of style more than content – it’s full of clever visual gags, but the belly-laugh dialogue hooks are mostly gone.
The transition isn’t just from hard R to PG, it’s from 1974 to 2022, and the picture spends a lot of time on the loneliness and blathering about self-confidence that have become more typical in child-oriented movies after the Disney Renaissance’ focus on more interesting stories waned away. Paws of Fury has a noticeably entertaining – and noticeably long – training montage, a stock sequence that was always better off as comedic subversion than as a genuine filmmaking tool, but it is wearing. Far too many 2020s plot beats and criteria make their way into what ought to be a pure comedy with no time for anything but jokes.
Paws of Fury frequently lifts lines from Blazing Saddles, as well as other old films viewers who come for nostalgia are more likely to be familiar with. The movie plays for its audience. Whenever the new movie hews close to classic lines, I always find myself wishing it had hewed a little closer. The bottom line is, as usual, I’d rather be watching the classic than the riff.
I already had a personal relationship with this idea that modern viewers would unthinkingly object to Blazing Saddles. The weekend after actor Gene Wilder died in 2016, several theaters ran his starring turn in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but I made a point of going down to the 4 p.m. at AMC Grapevine Mills, where they were running Blazing Saddles at 7. The house, one of their gigantic central four screens, was packed with 20-somethings, people who, like me, grew up on Willy Wonka, and it quickly became clear that about a third of the viewers thought they were going to see Willy Wonka but were the kind of people for whom a 4 p.m. Sunday curtain was too early and had no idea what they were in for.
It was an explosive crowd, one of the wildest and best individual theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. It isn’t that you can’t make a Mel Brooks movie today, it’s exactly the opposite – Mel Brooks movies are hailed as unimpeachable classics today, and viewers either don’t know what they’re missing or are clamoring for more. Paws of Fury demonstrates that obliquely, not by directly refuting the argument but by turning the same story into a PG-rated talking animal movie with the same blistering joke density for a similar good time.
Because for comedians operating in good faith, the goal is never to “push boundaries,” that’s just an excuse bad ones make. The goal is to entertain, and almost 50 years later, nobody does it better than Mel Brooks.