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Another Visit to Island of 'Moreau's' Creatures

August 23, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The disastrous new version of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau" at least affords Marlon Brando a grand entrance and a great comic portrayal. Swathed in white flowing robes with his face painted white as a protection against the sun and a kind of coolie perched on his head, he sits on a cymbidium-trimmed throne looking like a Kabuki female impersonator.

A jeep carries him to meet a young Englishman (David Thewlis), who after surviving a Java Sea plane crash, has had the singular misfortune to end up in Dr. Moreau's retreat. Over dinner, Brando's crazed Moreau explains the presence of throngs of monstrous creatures inhabiting the island. Most are animals who have been somehow anthropomorphized via the scientist's mad experiments; others look to be grotesque humans who have been subjected to a series of hideous plastic surgeries.

In a fruity British accent, the Buddha-like Moreau, this Dr. Mengele among geneticists, explains that by crossing animals and humans he can eradicate evil from the face of the Earth. (Don't ask why this should work.) Never mind that these hideous creatures can "regress" if they don't get their regular doses of the doctor's mysterious serum or that the animals have been made human enough to feel like slaves.

Perhaps Wells' 1896 horror tale could have some application to the implications of modern genetic engineering, but Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson's wretched script is too crude for such a connection and is only good for laughs.

Brando sets the tone for travesty, echoed by the fake-looking monsters, and director John Frankenheimer runs with it. Fresh from accolades for the made-for-cable "Andersonville," Frankenheimer nevertheless has come up with the worst movie made by a major American director since Arthur Penn directed "Penn and Teller Get Killed" (1989). Frankenheimer's sense of style and pace, abetted by William A. Fraker's fine camera work, is ultimately all for naught.

Thewlis actually is quite effective as a voice of sanity standing up to the madness threatening to engulf him. But Val Kilmer as Moreau's key assistant ("a brilliant neurosurgeon reduced to jailer"), Fairuza Balk as the most nearly perfect of the creatures and everyone else needs all the compassion they can get.

If it's laughs you're looking for you're better off renting the 1933 version of the Wells novel "Island of Lost Souls," a camp classic that's a hoot of a horror picture starring Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau. If you're looking to take Wells more seriously, try the 1977 "Moreau" starring Burt Lancaster.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sci-fi violence, horror and gore involving mutant creatures. Times guidelines: The film's mutants won't fool adults, but they could give youngsters nightmares.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'The Island of Dr. Moreau'

Marlon Brando: Dr. Moreau

Val Kilmer: Montgomery

David Thewlis: Edward Douglas

Fairuza Balk: Aissa

A New Line Cinema presentation of an Edward R. Pressman production. Director John Frankenheimer. Executive producers Tim Zinnemann, Claire Rudnick Polstein. Screenplay by Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson. Cinematographer William A. Fraker. Editor Paul Rubell. Makeup and creature effects Stan Winston. Special effects Digital Domain. Costumes Norma Moriceau. Music Gary Chang. Production designer Graham Walker. Art director Ian Gracie. Set decorators Beverley Dunn, Lesley Crawford. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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