Review: ‘Fierce Creatures’

It takes a stout heart to make a non-sequel sequel, but that's exactly what the makers of "A Fish Called Wanda" have done with "Fierce Creatures," a hilarious farce that thankfully doesn't besmirch the memory of the 1988 comedy. The ensemble has returned, but the ripping yarn finds them in new roles that are unrelated to the characters in the earlier pic.

It takes a stout heart to make a non-sequel sequel, but that’s exactly what the makers of “A Fish Called Wanda” have done with “Fierce Creatures,” a hilarious farce that thankfully doesn’t besmirch the memory of the 1988 comedy. The ensemble has returned, but the ripping yarn finds them in new roles that are unrelated to the characters in the earlier pic. The film is brisk, smart and bawdy, and could well challenge the $200 million worldwide B.O. success of “Wanda.” At the very least, the fun is certain to generate strong spring biz a la last year’s “The Birdcage.”

The antic mayhem of “Fierce” stems from a London zoo recently acquired by Kiwi media mogul Rod McCain (Kevin Kline). Willa Weston (Jamie Lee Curtis), recently hired by McCain’s Octopus Inc., arrives for her first day only to discover that her division was sold just hours earlier. But never fear, she’s assured, there’s a job for her in the empire … somewhere.

Scanning the telephone book of McCain ventures, she decides it would be fun to run the Marwood Zoo. Meanwhile, befitting the mogul’s usual m.o., he’s sent in ex-Hong Kong cop Rollo Lee (John Cleese) to rally the Marwood troops and turn the operation into a profitable outlet with a 20% annual return. Rollo figures the best way to make it a “sexy” tourist attraction is to eliminate its domesticated animals and have it stocked 100% by “fierce creatures.Far from the usual high-concept gagfest, “Creatures” is an artful combination of high and low comedy that runs like a well-oiled machine. It’s winningly character-driven, stretching but not breaking the bounds of credibility.

By the time Willa arrives with McCain’s fawning son Vince (also Kline) in tow, Rollo’s new vision is up and running. But the gamekeepers (who’ve become rather attached to their furry friends) have also been hard at work reinventing the image of the lemur, bandicoot, et. al. from cuddly varmints to dangerous predators.

Rollo is determined to stay his course, and seemingly executes a handful of the tamer types to demonstrate his sincerity. But don’t call the SPCA — it’s just another ruse. He’s hidden the cuties in his loo.

The true terror arrives when Vince unveils his master plan, which includes franchises, endorsements and commercial tie-ins. He dresses up the crew in Day-Glo outfits festooned with decals from popular brands, presents Bruce Springsteen’s turtle and drapes a tiger with an ad for Absolut Fierce. And he commits the ultimate sin of introducing animatronic animals to the menagerie.

Cleese, who co-wrote the film with Iain Johnstone, loves to tweak the Establishment and its vanguard of authority. The very proper British way is given a thorough thrashing, with Rollo serving as its standard-bearer. For those familiar with his Monty Python incarnations or “Fawlty Towers’ ” Basil Fawlty, the very prospect of seeing a Cleese character’s iron reserve melt away is a recipe for side-splitting laughter. That scenario comes riotously into play when Rollo mistakes an injured zoo patron for one of the play-acting animal tenders.

Rollo has to do a fair amount of squirming when his efforts to hide the more timid critters are misperceived by Willa as some elaborate, kinky sexual charade. The film also gets some solid licks in about conservation, crass commercialism, the plight of the son of a famous man and myriad other socio-psycho phenoms. It’s all done effortlessly, and the results are extremely funny.

With the new film, the winning “Wanda” acting team lays waste to theories of circumstantial luck. Besides Cleese, Curtis proves herself as one of the rare actresses who can be sexy and funny at the same time, while Palin, as a loquacious entomologist, is unstoppable and hysterical. Kline, who won an Oscar for the earlier collaboration, is inspired in dual roles. The company brings out an antic genius in Kline that’s awesome.

“Fierce Creatures’ ” (briefly known as “Dead Fish 2”) production history was unquestionably troublesome. Pic was filmed in summer 1995, and Cleese decided to rewrite its third act following test screenings. When the cast was reassembled, director Robert Young was unavailable and Fred Schepisi finished new scenes and re-shoots.

Although the film has a couple of awkward transitions, one would need a powerful lab microscope to determine the authorship of individual scenes. It’s a real testament to the filmmakers — especially initial cameraman Adrian Biddle and finisher Ian Baker — that the overall picture approaches the consummate stylishness Charles Crichton brought to “Wanda.” And production designer Roger Murray-Leach (a “Wanda” alum) has invented a zoo that’s inviting, inspired and apparently quite functional.

If not a “Fish” sequel, the new picture is unquestionably an equal.

Fierce Creatures

Production

A Universal Pictures release of a Fish Prods./Jersey Films production. Produced by Michael Shamberg, John Cleese. Executive producer, Steve Abbott. Co-producer, Patricia Carr. Directed by Robert Young, Fred Schepisi. Screenplay, John Cleese, Iain Johnstone.

Crew

Camera (Rank color, Panavision widescreen), Adrian Biddle, Ian Baker; editor, Robert Gibson; music, Jerry Goldsmith; production design, Roger Murray-Leach; art direction, David Allday, Kevin Phipps; costume design, Hazel Pethig; sound (DTS Digital), Chris Munro; animal consultant, Rona Brown; assistant directors, Jonathan Benson, Roy Stevens; casting, Priscilla John. Reviewed at the Beverly Connection, Beverly Hills, Jan. 13, 1997. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Rollo Lee - John Cleese
Willa Weston - Jamie Lee Curtis
Vince McCain/Rod McCain - Kevin Kline
Adrian "Bugsy" Malone - Michael Palin
Reggie Sealions - Ronnie Corbett
Sydney Small Mammals - Robert Lindsay
Cub Felines - Carey Lowell
Neville Coltrane - Bille Brown
Gerry Ungulates - Derek Griffiths
Pip Small Mammals - Cynthia Cleese
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