Paws of Fury is the best animated film – maybe one of the best films period – I’ve seen in the last several years. The Legend of Hank tells the story of Hank (Michael Cera), a wannabe samurai who is cursed with being the wrong species – a dog – in a land where only cats become samurai. Mentored unwillingly by the recluse Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson in all of his animated snarkiness), Hank must face down an evil conspiracy led by Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais), a civil servant who isn’t civil at all as he works to drive the cats of Kakamucho out of their village. In a story that blends feudal Japan with spaghetti westerns, Blazing Saddles, and a rivalry as old as time between cats and dogs, Paws of Fury delivers an adventure that’s fun for the whole family.
Let’s check a few boxes off, and get to the next level of discussion: Paws has snappy animation, an awesome voice cast that includes George Takei, Mel Brooks, Gabriel Iglesias, Djimon Hounsou, and Michelle Yeoh, a sense of humor that includes enough fart jokes for the younger kids and witty comebacks for the adults, and a storyline that allows anyone who has ever since a western to know there’s a showdown coming. All of that works. But the reality is that the film wants to dive deeper, too.
There’s discrimination involved, as Hank is told he isn’t welcome because he’s a dog and that no one can understand him (even though they can). It’s assumed he can’t provide anything admirable or worthwhile to society just because he’s not one of them. The flip side is that it’s assumed that Chu must be reliable just because he’s a cat, and it takes another cat stepping up to finally reveal that Chu isn’t actually a good cat.
There’s an element about being new in the community that works, because Hank doesn’t know how to do things and no one seems all that keen on making him feel welcome. In my experience as a pastor arriving at a new church, there’s a lot to be said for a welcome committee! Whether it’s a new job, or arriving at a new home in a new community, the reception you receive goes a long way to making you comfortable (or not). The story does talk about it a little, but it mostly shows us.
And then there’s my favorite (I think!) element: everyone needs discipleship. Hank needs a mentor but Jimbo doesn’t want to be a mentor. From a faith perspective, this is a crucial element of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus said in Matthew 28 to go into the world and make disciples; it’s a foundational element of what the church is supposed to be about! But too often we get hung up on hanging out with the people we’re already comfortable with, who are already part of our group, who are known to us. It’s important for them to grow as disciples but we’re supposed to make new ones!
I’ll throw in one last one for free: the discrimination isn’t just about cats and dogs. What Paws does wonderfully is show that everyone has the capacity to be a samurai with the right heart and the right training. I won’t spoil how that plays out, but it’s important to note that the film doesn’t spend the entire time trying to convince us that Hank is a hero. There are other heroes, too. [I’ll give you a hint: go read Jeremiah 1!]
Paws of Fury entertained the theater full of parents and children (and teenagers!) I was with a week ago, but better yet, it left me thinking about what it means to lead, to mentor, and to act with courage in the face of criticism. Two giant paw-sized thumbs up!