Exclusive: The Creative Forces Behind ‘Paws of Fury’ Explain the Way of the Feline Samurai

***This article originally appeared in the 35th Anniversary Issue of Animation Magazine (June-July ’22, No. 321)***

The famous undefeated samurai Miyamoto Musashi once said, “If you know the way broadly, you will see it in everything.” The quote speaks to the subtle and imperceptible threads that unify life’s many divergent concepts and cultures. And, yes, that even includes cats and dogs.

On the surface, the timeless clash of felines and canines that fuels the narrative in Paws of Fury: the Legend of Hank appears to be the film’s sole source of duality. However, the trio of creators behind the movie (writer Ed Stone and directors Rob Minkoff and Mark Koetsier) initially conceived the idea to explore the commonalities shared by Eastern and Western cinema. “The first idea was sort of a Western,” says Stone, who also penned the acclaimed 1999 movie Happy, Texas. “Can we take a real Western from the West and make it Eastern? Is that an interesting idea?”

Paws of Fury: the Legend of Hank follows the journey of the eponymous Hank, an endearing dachshund voiced by Michael Cera, as he endeavors to become a brave samurai. Hank embarks on the warrior’s path by training under a samurai cat named Jimbo, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson. As Hank’s skills develop, the villainous cat Ika Chu, played by Ricky Gervais, begins to upend law and order in the town, prompting the protagonist to test his samurai abilities.

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank
Gabriel Iglesias as “Chuck” and Aasif Mandvi as “Ichiro” in ‘Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank’

Homage to the Masters

Formerly known as Blazing Samurai, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. When the trio arrived at the idea of blending Eastern and Western story forms, they leaned on the cross-pollination of ideas shared by Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone as a reference point. “When it came to executing the scenes, as we went along, a lot of the shots, we tried to take Sergio Leone’s style of filmmaking,” says Koetsier. “Those really tight shots on the eyes and really low camera angles.”

In the early stages of development around 2010, Stone intended for the film to feature human leads. When he ran the idea by Minkoff, a veteran animation director whose credits include The Lion King, Stuart Little and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, he received an illuminating note that changed the shape of the project.

Rob Minkoff
Rob Minkoff

“I came to Ed and said, ‘Do you think it would be possible to turn this into a fable and make it about animals?’“ says Minkoff. “Ed said, ‘Well, I think that’s a good idea.’ So I jumped into the project, and we kind of did a reboot of it,” he says. Minkoff cites the script’s transition into a fable in 2014 as the point when the project began in earnest.

Retooling the screenplay as a fable also helped Stone recognize how saliently animals could visually reinforce the story’s metaphor. “We all struggle to be accepted for who we are and not what we look like,” says Stone. “Doing [the story] as a fable is a great way for families to have that conversation.”

“At the root of the story, [Hank] is not like everyone else,” says Minkoff. “I think we can all relate and identify to a story where you feel different or like an outsider. I think that’s pretty universal.”

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank
Ricky Gervais as “Ika Chu” and George Takei as “Ohga” in ‘Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank’

The Development Dojo

Mirroring the time it takes to hone a martial discipline, the gestation period for Paws of Fury was lengthy. “It was December [2019], and the production was animated in Montreal. I was there in February, and Mark was going to relocate to Montreal,” says Minkoff, recalling how the pandemic altered production at Cinesite. “And suddenly after February, it was like, ‘We’re shutting down, no more travel. Mark’s not going to go there. Everything is going to be done on Zoom.’’’

The trio says the first Zoom meetings were a nightmare to navigate, but after a brief adjustment period, the process became more efficient and less chaotic. Armed with their Wacom Cintiqs, Minkoff and Koetsier were able to produce sketches for the Cinesite animation team in real time. “When you’re looking at shots, we put it on a thing called SyncSketch, and everyone can actually review it at the same time on their computer,” explains Minkoff. “It was a very seamless process.”

Both Minkoff and Koetsier were incredibly intentional with the film’s character designs. “One of the things you might notice is that we’re playing with the scale of characters, too,” says Minkoff. “The cats in our movie, many of them are 10 times as big as the dog.” Despite comic distortion factoring into character designs, Koetsier says he wanted to retain the visual language of real cats and dogs, and it was important to keep the animal’s distinct silhouettes as recognizable as possible.

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank
Kylie Kuioka as “Emiko” and Michelle Yeoh as “Yuki” in ‘Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank’

Blazing Whiskers

In addition to his duties as a director, Minkoff got in touch with his inner audio engineer. He says he created several “instructional videos” to help actors construct studios at home. “We assembled a suite of recording equipment we put into a big Pelican case,” he says. “And I recorded a video on how to set it up.”

One of the film’s biggest influences and stars, Mel Brooks, encountered some hilarious technical difficulties while recording at home. “We get into the session, and the wifi doesn’t work,” says Minkoff. Brooks and his assistant switched rooms for better reception, but a noisy fan almost ruined the subsequent takes. “The material he recorded was so good. Everything was solid gold.” Thankfully the wizards at Skywalker Ranch salvaged the audio.

Outside of Brooks, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank has no shortage of fantastic comedic actors. “We could have made three more movies just taking Ricky [Gervais]’s recordings,” says Stone. “He would go on these tangents of how mean he could be,” says Koetsier. “He can certainly turn sarcasm into comedy.”

The inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson had a massive impact on production, as the trio tailored the movie around the iconic actor. “Sam Jackson was our first actor after Mel Brooks,” says Minkoff. “So a lot of [the casting] was, ‘Who would play well against him?’ Who was the right dynamic? And it really felt like Michael [Cera] and he would play well off of each other.”

Mark Koetsier
Mark Koetsier

When it came to casting the film’s everyman protagonist, the trio looked toward the understated comedic talents of Cera. “He really has a lot behind his voice,” says Koetsier, “He means what he says, and I think that really helped our character, Hank, to be a genuine character.” Similar to Hank’s growth in Paws of Fury, Cera went through his own character arc during the film’s production. “He got a girlfriend, he got married, he had a kid,” says Stone. “Two more years, he could’ve been a grandfather.”

On the topic of children, Stone assures viewers that Paws of Fury has something for everyone. “This is a family movie,” says Stone, “but we spent a lot of time to make sure it wasn’t a parent punisher.” Paws of Fury: the Legend of Hank follows Musashi’s wisdom of seeing the way broadly and finding the unifying threads that bond adults and children.

Paws of Fury: the Legend of Hank arrives in U.S. theaters on July 15 presented by Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies; produced by Align, Aniventure, Brooksfilms, Flying Tigers Ent., GFM Animation, Cinesite, HB Wink Animation and Huayi Tencent Ent.

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