If it's not a sequel, or a remake, what is "Fierce Creatures," the long-awaited reunion film of the cast from "A Fish Called Wanda"?
Kevin Kline, who won an Oscar for his performance in "Wanda," is quoted in the production notes as calling "Fierce Creatures" "an equal." He must have said that before the movie was finished, before preview audiences held their noses and it was sent back for more work.
"Fierce Creatures' " release was delayed by about a year while a new director, Fred Schepisi in for Robert Young, reassembled the cast and shot new footage. Finally, here it is, by no means the equal to "Wanda," but a charming mess with moments of hilarity.
The script, written by John Cleese and British critic Iain Johnstone, shares nothing with "Wanda," other than their vague pets-in-jeopardy themes, and is a far less clever concoction. But the inspiration is present in each of the characters.
Cleese again plays a kind of bumbling authority figure, a London zoo manager shocked at the attention paid him by Jamie Lee Curtis' seductive American. Michael Palin, no longer a stammerer, is a motor-mouthed zookeeper with a deep attachment to his pet tarantula. And Kline, the son of Murdoch-mocking media baron Rod McCain (also played by Kline) is the crazed egotist who doesn't know when he's not wanted.
Vince McCain is a vacuous, simple-minded character with little of the irresistible looniness of his ("Don't call me stupid!") Otto in "Wanda," and Kline mostly flails around doing shrill physical shtick. He's much better as the old man, a flatulent Australian empire builder whose buy-pillage-sell philosophy sets events in motion at his newly acquired Marwood Zoo.
The task facing Cleese's Rollo Lee is to get zoo profits up by 20%, even if it means killing passive animals to make room for the fierce creatures the public really wants to see. Naturally, the zoo staff isn't up to executing their furry friends, and mutiny is in the air when Vince and Willa Weston (Curtis) arrive, as emissaries of Octopus Inc., to take charge.
Willa's plan is to develop the zoo as a model for a chain of theme parks. Vince wants to merchandise the animals by selling sponsorships to their cages (among the sponsors he corrals are Pizza Hut, Panasonic and Saddam Hussein) and pocket the income.
The problems uncovered in the preview screenings of "Fierce Creatures" are apparent in the film's rambling, anecdotal story line. As in his Monty Python days, Cleese comes up with great bits, but there's not much forward momentum here.
In fact, the presumably new ending, with Rod McCain showing up at the zoo for a darkly comic showdown with his son, seems only distantly related to the events preceding it.
Stranger yet, the ending works, as its own extended sketch. It is better developed and more controlled, and in ways that can't be explained by good editing. The performances actually feel different, especially Kline's. It's as if he's finally gotten a handle on Vince and reigned him in just enough to make him sympathetic.
To whomever pulled it together, nice work. "Fierce Creatures" won't make anyone forget "A Fish Called Wanda"--or remember it, for that matter--but it gets the year off to a good laugh.
* MPAA rating: PG-13. Times guidelines: The bawdiness will go over small kids' heads, and no animals are harmed, on or off camera.
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John Cleese: Rollo Lee
Kevin Kline: Rod and Vince McCain
Jamie Lee Curtis: Willa Weston
Michael Palin: Bugsy Malone
A Fish Prods./Jersey Films Production, released by Universal Pictures. Directors Robert Young and Fred Schepisi. Producers Michael Shamberg, John Cleese. Script Cleese, Iain Johnstone. Editor Robert Gibson. Photography Adrian Biddle, Ian Baker. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Roger Murray-Leach. Art director David Allday, Kevin Phipps. Costumes Hazel Pethig. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.