Home > Reviews > PAWS OF FURY: THE LEGEND OF HANK – Bear McCreary


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

At first glance, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank looks like one of those tired animated films that come out seemingly weekly to keep the kids entertained for 90 minutes during those dog days of summer, but a deeper look reveals a few interesting things. First of all, the film is an animated remake of the classic 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles, albeit transposed to a fantasy world of samurai cats and dogs, which is an unexpectedly brilliant idea in and of itself. Second, the film is co-directed by master animator Rob Minkoff, one of the men behind such classics as The Lion King. Third, it has an astonishing voice cast, including Michael Cera, Samuel L. Jackson, Ricky Gervais, George Takei, Djimon Hounsou, Michelle Yeoh, and Mel Brooks himself essentially reprising his role as Governor Le Petomane from Blazing Saddles. Fourth – and most importantly from my point of view – it has a score by Bear McCreary.

This is McCreary’s third foray into the world of animation, following his work on the feature film Animal Crackers, and the TV series Masters of the Universe: Revelation last year. It’s clearly a medium that suits McCreary’s style; he has shown, multiple times over the course of his career, that he is a composer that values the ‘big moments’ in film music, whether these be powerful themes, deep emotions, rousing action sequences, or some combination of all these things. Animation as a medium also usually lends itself to classic orchestral scores, which help bridge the emotional divide that often exists between the animated characters and the audience, and that is certainly the case here too. However, what’s especially fun about Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is the fact that it also gave McCreary the opportunity to write music that pays homage to two other iconic styles: first, the classic jazz and funk scores of the 1970s, especially the ones that composers such as Lalo Schifrin wrote for the now-iconic martial arts movies of Bruce Lee; and second, the scores which composers like Ennio Morricone wrote for so many spaghetti westerns, especially in this instance Il Mio Nome è Nessuno and Giù la Testa.

The score was recorded in Tennessee with the Nashville Scoring Orchestra, with special focus on several soloists: for the ethnic Japanese elements of the score McCreary featured Hong Wang on shakuhachi and dizi, Zac Zinger on shakuhachi, shinobue, and penny whistle, Mike Penny on shamisen, and Osamu Kitajima on koto and biwa. Then, for the jazz and funk parts, McCreary collaborated with Andrew Synowiec on electric wah-wah guitar, Pete Griffin on electric bass, and Hal Rosenfeld on drums.

There are several recurring themes that weave throughout the score, but the biggest and most memorable of them is the huge, heroic melody for Hank himself, which is omnipresent almost through the entire work; it’s based on the melody of the original song “Blazing Samurai” by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner and what’s great about it is the way that McCreary adopts it to the different genre orchestrations without it losing any of its immediacy or relevance. In several cues it’s arranged for one of the many delicate and lyrical Japanese instruments, then it quickly switches to the big funk sound of blaring trumpets and thrumming guitars, then it’s arranged like a spaghetti western, and then it’s balls-to-the-wall enormous full orchestral action. It’s so much fun, so catchy, and it serves the movie well.

There are two other identifiable themes in the score too. The first is an ominous, bold, brassy march for George Takei’s character Ohga, the brutal leader of a feline army, which is introduced in “Kakamucho Under Attack”. The second is a vaguely comedic but also threatening theme for “Ikachu” himself, Ricky Gervais’s character, who is trying to usurp the power of the shogun Toshi and become the warlord-leader himself, and who is sending Ohga’s army to attack neighboring villages. Ikachu’s theme is usually carried by low woodwinds, supported by pizzicato strings, Japanese textures, and militaristic snare patterns, as well as a choir chanting the name ‘ikachu’ in an odd but effective touch. Finally, the music for Mel Brooks’s character, Toshi, in “The Shogun,” is full of heraldic brass, regal and pompous, all moving around within a bed of old-fashioned Japanese textures.

However, unlike other McCreary scores which are masterpiece tapestries of thematic density and interplay, everything here is subservient to the main theme for Hank, and the other melodic ideas are clearly secondary. That’s not to say that this score is lesser because of it; on the contrary, the amount of mileage McCreary gets from Hank’s theme is very impressive, and he really puts it through its paces i8n a variety of settings.

I love the opening salvo in “Samurai for Dummies,” which initially frames the theme with a loving homage to 1970s Lalo Schifrin wakka wakka funk, guitars and bongos and jazz flutes ahoy. Later, the theme becomes more deeply orchestral, and the melody moves from strings to solo horns and back again, surrounded by a variety of rich symphonic arrangements. In “Hank Meets Jimbo” McCreary offers two wildly different versions of the theme, first a mystical version for Japanese instruments backed by a bass guitar, and then a massive version for Morricone-style solo trumpets.

There’s also a great deal of action in the score, and it’s also very impressive. Interestingly, some of the action writing reminds me very much of John Powell and How to Train Your Dragon, both in its overall approach, and in some of its specific compositional and tonal touches. McCreary often uses fast, complicated brass triplets and flourishes underneath the strings, and in the moments when he uses a choir it often has the same gruff, masculine quality as Powell’s scores for those animated Vikings did, even down to the “hoo-hah” noises the vocalists make. There are numerous terrific examples of McCreary’s action style throughout the score, but there are some specific standout moments I wanted to highlight.

I love the James Horner/ Star Trek II-style howling horns at 1:50 in “Kakamucho Under Attack”. The simultaneous combination of the Japanese instruments and the Morricone western stylings in “Hank’s Escape” is a brilliant fusion of disparate styles – did McCreary just invent the spaghetti-sushi western? The Asian action music in “Fireside Flashback,” with its massive ground-shaking taiko drums, combines brilliantly with more Morricone-style trumpets, and a sequence of progressive 1960s jazz, that just howls with effortless cool.

Later, “Enter the Sumo” is sort of a variation on Ohta’s march theme, in which McCreary really lays the Morricone textures on thick – there are whistles, whipcracks, chanted voices, jaw harps, and a solo trumpet surrounded by trilling orchestral flourishes. It’s all tremendously exciting, and some of the brass writing in the second half of the cue even has a hint of a Miklós Rózsa fanfare to it, like the music for a Roman gladiator entering the coliseum. This then leads in to the “Sumo Fight,” which is funky and jazzy, upbeat and rousing.

Counterbalancing this are some more low-key and lyrical moments, notably the magical version of the main theme in “Hank Meets Jimbo,” for the scene where Hank first encounters Samuel L. Jackson’s samurai sensei. “Signing the Contract” opens with a sparkling version of the main theme led by dainty woodwinds and prancing strings, and then later “Origami” offers a version of the main theme that is introspective, calm, almost subtle, and is again carried by lyrical woodwinds.

The finale of the score, comprising “Torn Contract,” “Jimbo’s Sacrifice,” “The Battle of Kakamucho,” and “Showdown on the Super Bowl,” is a 15-minute action extravaganza that brings together all the different elements of the score in a wonderfully bombastic set piece. Hank’s theme, Ohga’s march, and the Ikachu theme all dance around each other, as the focus of the music switches from the full-blooded orchestra, to the Japanese instruments, to the funk combo, to the spaghetti western sound, and back again, often within the space of the same cue, and often simultaneously. It has the potential to be a bloody mess – trumpets and electric guitars and shakuhachi and choir and orchestra, all at the same time?! – but it’s not a mess at all. McCreary somehow makes it all flow seamlessly, and allows these disparate stylistics to complement each other perfectly.

There’s a statement of Hank’s theme half way through “The Battle of Kakamucho,” noble and reverential, where the melody is carried by bass flutes backed by an unusual undulating, florid, string countermelody that I found fascinating. Then, during “Showdown on the Super Bowl,” the main theme is carried by guitars and an Alessandro Alessandroni-style whistler, before the whole thing explodes into a final statement for orchestra and funk guitars, and finishes with a flourish.

The final cue, “Samurai Hank,” is essentially an end credits suite summing up all the main elements of the score, and it’s brilliant, but it’s not without it’s surprises either; not only does it occasionally lean very heavily on the John Powell How to Train Your Dragon action writing, there’s also a moment beginning at the 3:00 mark which has a clear similarity to Howard’s Shore’s stepwise brass progressions from The Lord of the Rings – perhaps foreshadowing the fact that McCreary has also been working on the LOTR prequel TV series, The Rings of Power? The whole thing ends with a final funky version of the main theme that is just tremendous.

Not content with just writing the score, McCreary also produced the film’s two original songs, “Blazing Samurai” and “The Coolest Cat,” both of which were written by songwriting duo Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. As I mentioned earlier, “Blazing Samurai” is the source of McCreary’s main theme for Hank and features the vocals of Michael K. Lee doing his best Peter Tevis impression, while “The Coolest Cat” is performed by Broadway star Adrienne Warren, with backing vocals by Wendi Bergamini and Raya Yarbrough, and is very clearly modeled on the smooth sexiness of Isaac Hayes’s Oscar-winning song from the classic blaxploitation movie Shaft. Both are terrific if you enjoy that sound and style, as I do.

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is a great score, terrific fun, with a memorable main theme, and some rousing action, and if that’s all you need, then you’ll be happy. What makes it all the more outstanding for me, however, is McCreary’s brilliant and successful blending of so many apparently uncooperative and truculent musical styles – there aren’t many composers who could use wakka-wakka guitars and a funk rhythm section alongside a shakuhachi and a koto, the classic instruments of a spaghetti western, and a full modern symphony orchestra, and make it not sound like a complete disaster. Not only is Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank not a disaster, it’s actually quite inspired. Hank may be a dog who’s also the coolest cat, but he wouldn’t be half as cool without a Bear.

Buy the Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Blazing Samurai (written by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, performed by Michael K. Lee) (1:27)
  • The Coolest Cat (written by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, performed by Adrienne Warren) (2:34)
  • Samurai for Dummies (2:51)
  • Kakamucho Under Attack (2:20)
  • Ikachu (1:37)
  • The Shogun (2:03)
  • Hank’s Escape (2:52)
  • Hank Meets Jimbo (2:58)
  • Signing the Contract (4:03)
  • Fireside Flashback (1:14)
  • Enter the Sumo (3:08)
  • Sumo Fight (1:47)
  • Origami (2:49)
  • Torn Contract (2:24)
  • Jimbo’s Sacrifice (4:08)
  • The Battle of Kakamucho (5:38)
  • Showdown on the Super Bowl (2:41)
  • Samurai Hank (7:40)

Running Time: 54 minutes 05 seconds

Sparks and Shadows (2022)

Music composed by Bear McCreary. Conducted by David Shipps. Orchestrations by Edward Trybek, Sean Barrett, Benjamin Hoff and Jamie Thierman. Additional music by Omer Ben-Zvi, Sam Ewing and Gary Robinson. Hank’s Theme written by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone and Nick Spezia. Edited by Michael Baber. Album produced by Bear McCreary.

  1. mike
    August 3, 2022 at 8:00 am

    I really enjoy this score- but the fact that you didn’t mention the John Powell/Hans Zimmer Kung Fu Panda scores is a mystery. Paws of Fury is very similar!

  1. January 28, 2023 at 10:01 am

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