Simply Beastly

You can bet that at one point or another some executive wanted the title of this long-awaited nonsequel to 1988's A Fish Called Wanda to be A Lemur Called Rollo (the story does include such a character). While that wouldn't have been the most commercial of titles, neither is Fierce Creatures, a lovely little comedy that, one hopes, will -- like its predecessor -- buck the odds and find its audience.

Despite the built-in marketing advantage of being the successor to the second-highest-grossing British film ever, Fierce Creatures arrives with a cartful of problematic luggage. First is the issue of not being a sequel to Wanda. From the beginning the filmmakers have (naturally) exploited the Wanda connection while taking pains to explain that no, these aren't the same characters, just the same actors. (How much do you want to bet that most potential customers still assume it's a sequel?)

Second, and more important, are the movie's production problems. It's no secret that early test screenings were so bad that major reshooting had to be done nearly a year later. The original director, Robert Young -- not to be confused with the better-known American, Robert M. Young, director of Triumph of the Spirit and Dominick and Eugene -- was replaced by Fred Schepisi (Six Degrees of Separation), who, Roxanne notwithstanding, hardly seems the obvious choice for a (more or less) screwball comedy.

I was never quite as knocked out by Wanda as the rest of the world, so it's pleasant to say that I found Fierce Creatures far funnier, much more in the gentle tradition of the old Ealing Studios comedies (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, et cetera) than Wanda, featuring the sort of ensemble of lovable eccentrics that was a hallmark of those older classics.

The story starts when Rod McCain (Kevin Kline) -- an evil Australian magnate clearly patterned on Rupert Murdoch -- finds among that day's acquisitions a small British zoo. Since Rod requires that each of his operations generates at least a twenty percent annual return, a figure the zoo doesn't even approach, he dispatches Hong Kong TV exec Rollo Lee (John Cleese) to take over the facility. Rollo immediately tries to assert his authority by playing the tough guy: Because the public wants entertainment with violence, the zoo must immediately get rid of all nonfierce creatures. And when the angry zookeepers tell him there is nowhere to house the unwanted animals, Rollo shows he means business by taking five of the most adorable beasties out back and shooting them.

Well, actually, he pretends to shoot them. I'm not giving much away here: You and I both know that in a film of this sort, there's no way the hero is going to dispatch five cuddly, big-eyed animals. No, the sentimental Rollo has actually allowed all five the run of his bedroom, barely leaving room for himself.

Just as the zoo folk are beginning to realize what a big softy Rollo really is, his authority is undercut by the arrival of Rod's idiot son Vince McCain (Kline again) and ambitious manager Willa Weston (Jamie Lee Curtis). Willa sees an opportunity to make the zoo a model for a chain of theme parks, while Vince is more concerned with getting Willa into bed.

Much in the manner of Wanda, Fierce Creatures has Curtis warming up to Cleese while fending off the moronic Kline. The characters -- while not as close to their Wanda equivalents as, say, the variously named Hope and Crosby characters in one Road film after another were to each other -- follow the same general pattern as in Wanda. Cleese's Rollo is a bit more pathetic (and somewhat better drawn) than barrister Archie was. Michael Palin once again plays a sort of sweet-natured sad sack, though this time, instead of having a stutter so bad he can barely speak, he's a garrulous know-it-all who simply can't shut the fuck up. (Presumably the producers made sure that there is no National Logorrheics Association to get upset over the portrayal.)

On the whole the nastier edge of Wanda's humor has been softened here. Only Rod is thoroughly loathsome. (Would that this had been a Fox project! One wonders whether Murdoch, true to form, would have distributed this vicious lampooning of himself if he thought it would make money. Rod McCain would have.) Kline's dual role makes the character's viciousness more acceptable: The most extreme scenes involve him (as one McCain) attacking himself (as the other).

There are occasional external references that briefly disturb the story's reality. Willa is accidentally called "Wanda" at one point. And, weirdly, one spectator -- not Palin -- seems to mistake a sea lion for the late lamented Norwegian blue parrot: "Wonderful animals, sea lions. Beautiful plumage," he says nonsensically.

It's hard to believe the film was extensively reworked and reshot; the seams really don't show at all. Nor can one figure out what was shot by which director. If anything, the story moves in a more linear fashion than Wanda, to great comic effect.

It would be nice if this gang of players could get on to the next collaboration a bit sooner. Cleese and Palin, the oldest of the four, clearly show the passage of the years (blame it on British cooking), though remarkably Kline and Curtis don't. But there is definitely a comic dynamic among the quartet -- particularly between Cleese and Kline. In his Monty Python days, Cleese specialized in two types: self-possessed bureaucrats and gentlemen ("The Argument Clinic," "The Pet Shop") and the dangerously deranged (the dirty fork sketch and "Self-Defense"). In his films he has externalized his mad aspects and given them to Kline's characters, while keeping his harassed, middle-class attributes for himself. The two provide a tension that could profitably power several more films.

Fierce Creatures.
Written by John Cleese and Iain Johnstone; directed by Robert Young and Fred Schepisi; with John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Ronnie Corbett, Robert Lindsay, and Carey Lowell.

 
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