Screenplay : John Cleese and Iain Johnstone
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : John Cleese (Rollo Lee), Jamie Lee Curtis (Willa Weston), Kevin Kline (Vince McCain/Rod McCain), Michael Palin (Adrian "Bugsy" Malone), Ronnie Corbett (Reggie Sea Lions), Carey Lowell (Cub Felines), Robert Lindsay (Sydney Lotterby)
In "Fierce Creatures," the cast of 1988's "A Fish Called Wanda" reunite for a sort of sequel-in-spirit. While the two movies' characters and plots are completely different, they share the same kind of manic sensibilities and humor based on conflicting cultures and ideals. Unfortunately, the comedy of "Fierce Creatures" only manages to approach the comic mastery of "Wanda" in a few scenes, relegating it to being merely a ghostly shadow of the earlier and much better film.
Together for the first time since 1988 are the four leads: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. For those of you with good memories, you will also notice that the film features a few other "Wanda" veterans in small supporting roles, such as Maria Aitken who played Cleese's wife in "Wanda," and his real-life daughter Cynthia Cleese, who played his daughter.
In "Fierce Creatures," Cleese stars as Rollo Lee, the newly imposed head of a small, British zoo. In typical Cleese fashion, he is essentially a nice, rather absent-minded Brit trying hard to assert himself in a tough world. Here he finds himself under the thumb of ruthless billionaire tycoon Rod McCain (Kevin Kline), who bought the zoo and is threatening to close it unless it returns a profit of at least twenty percent. Unfortunately, the zoo is not doing business of that caliber, so Cleese determines that the only way to make the imposed profit margin is to fill the zoo with nothing but fierce creatures. As he puts it, "Violence sells."
Of course, this appalls the zookeepers, especially Adrian "Bugsy" Malone, played by Michael Palin as a complete opposite of his stuttering "Wanda" character. Throughout the movie he talks incessantly, chattering away in pointless, technical jargon that virtually no one listens to. In one of the movie's funnier scenes, one that is very reminiscent of what old Monty Python sketches were like, Bugsy and the other zookeepers attempt to convince Cleese that such warm, cuddly animals as lemurs and meerkas are actually vicious killers. They paint signs depicting the animals tearing other animals limb from limb, and when that doesn't work, they go so far as to stage a series of fake attacks involving make-up effects and fake blood.
Meanwhile, one of McCain's new vice presidents, Willa Weston (Jamie Lee Curtis) decides to impress the boss by taking over the zoo and running it right. McCain's spineless and idiotic son Vince (also played by Kline), who wants nothing more than to get Willa in bed, decides to tag along. This is just fine with the elder McCain, because he can't stand his son. He mentions that, while having him 4,000 miles away isn't quite enough, it will have to do.
Unfortunately for Vince, he not only has no business sense (he tries to impress visitors with an animatronic panda among other disasters), Willa has no interest in him because she finds herself attracted to Cleese's character. This is, of course, a rough take on the same love triangle presented in "A Fish Called Wanda." Here, it doesn't come together nearly as well, especially since Curtis' attraction to Cleese is a result of her plot-induced misunderstanding that he is a sex machine who can't get along with anything less than two women at a time.
"Fierce Creatures" was helmed by two directors, Robert Young and Fred Schepisi. This is almost always a bad sign for a movie because the two directors each put their own imprint on the finished product, giving it an uneven quality. Young directed the majority of the film, but when test audiences disliked the original ending, Cleese brought in Schepisi to shoot a new ending because Young was already working on another project.
None of the actors really shine, a real loss especially since Kline was so brilliant in his Oscar-winning performance eight years earlier. Cleese turns in the best performance, but he is merely playing a slight variation of his Archie character in "Wanda." Palin spends most of the film merely babbling, and Curtis has little or nothing to do, which I found especially surprising considering the strength and complexity of her "Wanda" role.
The lack of memorable performances may be a result of the script by Cleese and Iain Johnstone, which feels woefully underwritten. They put together a few good setpieces and some hilarious dialogue (including some great Freudian slips uttered with impeccable ingenuity by Cleese), but the story as a whole never quite takes off. The laughs are sometimes big, but they are too sporadic, leaving long lapses in between that make the movie feel much longer and less funny than it actually is.
©1997 James Kendrick