Fierce Creatures
directed by Fred Schepisi
& Robert Young III
(MCA/Universal Pictures, 1996)

In 1988, John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin combined their considerable talents to make the slightly skewed but gut-bustingly funny A Fish Called Wanda.

Nine years later they followed it up with Fierce Creatures, a film that can only be called fiercely disappointing.

Figuring where the ferociously funny foursome went wrong would challenge Charlie Chan. It's certainly not the concept, which is rife with all sorts of possibilities.

Blustering zillionaire Rod McCain (Kline) acquires, as an offshoot of a larger deal, an English zoo. The zoo's doing just fine, but it's not up to McCain's standards: that is, it's not turning over a 20 percent profit, which he needs so he can buy out something else he doesn't care about. So he imports ex-cop Rollo Lee (Cleese) to improve the zoo's profitability. Lee tries to do that by giving people only the animals they really want to see: fierce creatures, and nothing but fierce creatures. All the rest are to be shot.

That leads to a round of fairly manic obfuscation, in which the caretakers, led by fast-talking entomologist Bugsy Malone (Palin), try to con Lee into believing all their critters -- aardvarks included -- are man-eaters.

Things only get worse with the arrival of McCain's idiot son Vince (Kline again) and rising corporate executive Willa Weston (Curtis), who are assigned to oversee Lee's efforts.

That, of course, means trouble. Weston finds herself oddly attracted to Lee, who's odd enough in his own right; and Vince has his own plans for improving the zoo's profitability, though they have more to do with Weston's bottom line than with the zoo's.

Vince takes corporate sponsorship to new heights -- or lows, depending on your perspective -- by finding a sponsor for every animal in the zoo, and allowing the companies to stamp their names right on the animals themselves. Hence, the Absolut tiger.

It's a wonderful moment, but like many other moments in Fierce Creatures, it doesn't add up to much.

That's because Fierce Creatures, for all the talent that went into it, lacks two things: Character and characters.

Unlike the intricately constructed, inscrutably patient A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures gets off to a fast start only to find itself with nowhere to go. Consequently, it meanders from joke to joke, a funny idea in search of a script, dependent on running gags that mostly run out of gas.

Worse yet, Lee, Weston and Malone never develop to the point where we care about what happens to them. Wanda works because its characters, a bunch of scoundrels who devote all their waking and sleeping hours to cheating one another, at some point become people who embody our own hopes and desires.

In Fierce Creatures, the characters are strictly see-throughs, sentimentalized from the outset, with no hidden agendas and, until the closing moments, no interesting secrets to divulge.

Taken with low expectations, lots of patience and plenty of popcorn, Fierce Creatures can provide pleasant food for thought.

Personally, I'll take Fish.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]



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