Fierce Creatures (1997)

D: Roger Young/Fred Schepisi
S: John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin

The real farce was obviously off screen here. This disjointed, underdeveloped and generally unfunny follow up to A Fish Called Wanda wastes the talents of everyone involved in the service of a woeful script co written by film critic Iain Johnstone and John Cleese.

To be fair, a certain degree of notoriety surrounded the production of this film, and there were well publicised rewrites and reshoots which resulted in the dual directing credit (it seems even Alan Smithee turned it down). But even if you didn't know this, Fierce Creatures would feel wrong. It is a series of half-worked comic ideas and characters which never even begins to come together in an entertaining manner and eventually becomes depressing.

Under the surface, you can see there might have been something here. It is nominally the story of what happens when a ruthless multinational corporation takes over the running of a small English zoo. The title has suitable ambiguity: a satirical poke linking the world of corporate piracy with the animal kingdom, the irony being that the latter is certainly less fierce and more worthy of respect. There are several narrative threads. The first concern's Cleese's efforts as new manager to boost profits by marketing the zoo as a place where you can see only dangerous animals. This results in some mild smiles surrounding the attempts by the keepers to convince him that lemurs are vicious and coati ravage Argentinean villages. But a second front is created with the introduction of Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis as the CEO's son and a marketing manager respectively. She wants to succeed and impress, he wants to embezzle from his hated father and seduce her. Their introduction transforms Cleese from villain to hero, antagonist to progatonist, because he now wants to run things properly. This is a suicidal bit of plotting from a classical screenplay point of view, and it doesn't work here. The third front opens with the ongoing battle between Kline as son and Kline as father, the latter of whom wants to close the zoo down and sell it to the Japanese as a golf course. This eventually comes to dominate the rest of the film, but generally seems to exist only to provide Kline with a platform to mug uncontrollably in two obnoxious roles, one of which, incredibly, is meant to be sympathetic.

The threads never come together, and become more addled as the pic goes on. The characters are never properly grounded because the story keeps changing direction and the humour in the final edit seems to consist largely of gags about groping Curtis and seeing Cleese in various states of undress and/or compromise (echoes of Wanda, admittedly, but faint ones). A supporting cast of capable performers are reduced to scattered cameos, including Ronnie Corbett and even star billed Michael Palin. Again, you can sense where the humour was supposed to be, but something indescribably horrible has happened to this film on the way to the cinema and it lurches on screen mangled, mutilated and slowly bleeding to death.

It expires long before the final credits mercifully put an end to its suffering, but the effect is no less terrible. You don't know who to blame and you feel someone ought to pay. It is difficult not to credit the talent involved with honest effort, yet you feel that someone ought to have called a halt to things before they got out of hand. In a rather chilling echo of its own plot, a serviceable comedy has been brutally massacred by corporate forces unable to grasp what they are dealing with. But in to avoid the straw target of Hollywood moneymen, it is arguable that there was a fundamental weakness in the writing in the first place which led to the disastrous previews. There were reshoots, certainly, but the film never feels entirely at ease. Its attempts at warmth come off as cynical ploys (Curtis' 'contact' with a gorilla, Cleese communing with his charges, the relationship between the two) and its elements of farce are cast adrift in search of something to anchor them in the way of believable characters.

In the final analysis, Fierce Creatures is an utterly unfunny film which few will enjoy. This is made worse by the knowledge not only that it could have been better, but that it probably was at some point in its development. Avoid.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.