Granted that the only “bad” John Cleese is “no” John Cleese, still “Fierce Creatures” is a disappointment in view of such triumphs as “A Fish Called Wanda” and that comic masterwork, “Fawlty Towers.”
In the near-decade since “A Fish Called Wanda,” however, Cleese has repositioned himself as a formidable dramatic player; his contributions to “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” have impressed even the detractors of that Kenneth Branagh film. So it seems Cleese’s return to full-throttle absurdity should have been more … well, more “fierce” than “Fierce Creatures” has turned out.
It is a likable and smooth-running film, for all that. Cleese plays the hated and put-upon overseer of a zoo whose new owners (Kevin Kline, as both a ruthless profiteer and his dim-witted, skirt-chasing son) are bent on making the place impossibly profitable. Reasoning that the paying crowds prefer a sensationalized approach, new manager Cleese formulates a policy whereby the zoo will dispose of all its gentler animals and keep only “fierce creatures.”
Mutiny starts brewing immediately among the gentler souls at the quaint, sleepy little zoo. Insect keeper Michael Palin is convinced that Cleese has killed, rather than merely expelled, a number of the more snuggly animals. On arriving to take charge, Kline (as the son) and junior executive Jamie Lee Curtis bust Cleese to a lesser assignment and begin formulating their own money-grubbing strategy. But Cleese still has some surprises in store.
The original screenplay (by Cleese and Iain Johnstone) seems unduly restrained, especially given its setting and the ever-presence of danger and the opportunity for revenge. Cleese’s gift for mingling rage and civility would make him a perfect candidate to star in a remake of “Murders in the Zoo” (1932), Depression-era Hollywood’s most cold-blooded crime melodrama. But a mildly scary brush with a gorilla is about as savage as “Fierce Creatures” gets - and that scene is just a plot device to open Curtis’ eyes to the corporate corruption she represents. The script’s indictment of corporate greed is little more than a case of preaching to the choir.
The two-director situation is also problematical. Belated retakes found original director Robert Young busy with another project, so Fred Schepisi was called in to helm the additional footage. Inconsistencies in style and attitude are inevitable, even with Cleese as the guiding intelligence.
Cleese is fine, however subdued, as the autocratic manager who bites off more than he is prepared to chew. All the other returning stars from “A Fish Called Wanda” seem glad to be back in such fine company, but apart from Kline’s sometimes-antic performance there is no excess of energy among the ensemble cast. Palin’s motor-mouthed egghead character is a welcome reminder of the “Monty Python” days, and veteran English comedian Ronnie Corbett (of “The Two Ronnies”) puts in a welcome appearance.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Fierce Creatures” Locations: Newport and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by Fred Schepisi and Robert Young, starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin Running time: 1:33 Rating: PG-13