Los Angeles (AFP) -
Dogs and cats must put their rivalry aside to save a village -- and offer audiences a lesson in inclusion and diversity -- in the new animated film 'Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank.'
The film, out in US theaters on Friday, features a stellar voice cast including Samuel L Jackson, Ricky Gervais, Michael Cera, George Takei, Mel Brooks and Michelle Yeoh.
It tells the story of Hank (Cera), an underestimated beagle who dreams of becoming a samurai, but ends up in a small village dominated by cats.
The lonely dog -- who makes up for a lack of martial arts training with his sheer persistence -- must learn to win the hearts of the cats of Kakamucho, who distrust him for being different.
The film draws inspirations from Brooks' 1974 race satire 'Blazing Saddles,' using humor to address social prejudice.
'I think that's a message that is always, always relevant and always needed,' Cera told AFP.
'Art is a way to bring those messages across in a way that you feel, and not just telling people what to think.... going on this journey with this character, and seeing what he goes through and experiencing the emotions.'
'Especially for little children who can really digest that and extend their empathy,' he added.
Ika Chu, voiced by Gervais, is the story's villain -- a Somali cat seeking to destroy the village for his own greed, and trying to sow prejudice to further his evil plan.
'What kind of a world do we live in, where good and upright citizens can't be counted on to kill someone just because they look different?' he purrs.
- 'Divided' -
Takei, who voices Ohga -- the villain's right-hand cat -- said the film teaches that 'differences might be an asset... filling out the weakness in your society.'
The 85-year-old actor, known for his political and social activism, told AFP the film's 'good message' comes at a key time.
'We live in a fractured society today. Every headline in the paper or every breaking news on TV, it is a divided society that we live in,' he said.
For Takei, the project's timing is also significant because family audiences have not had many chances to laugh together in movie theaters since Covid-19 arrived.
Family animation, more than any other genre, has suffered in theaters during the pandemic, although the recent success of 'Minions: The Rise of Gru' could signal a change.
'I think it's so exciting and I can't wait to go see a movie in the theater myself,' added Cera, who said he has recently recovered from Covid-19.
'I missed that experience. And I think I think everybody does.
'I'm excited that on the other side of that now, we can we can get that back again.'