Almost a decade before the release of Fierce Creatures, Monty Python alum John Cleese wrote and starred in A Fish Called Wanda. A critical and box office smash, there were many fans of the movie who were open to the idea of a sequel.
Instead, Cleese reassembled the main cast of Wanda (Cleese, co-Monty Python member Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline) and wrote a new story with new characters. He kept a few similar elements from the previous film: an unlikely romance between his and Curtis’ characters, an epically stupid character for Kline to play, and a farcical vibe that echoes the classic Ealing Studio comedies of yore.
The results were greeted with very mixed reactions from critics and the audience. In fact, Cleese has declared in recent years that he regrets trying to recapture the success of A Fish Called Wanda, and would not make the film if he had the choice again.
I think he’s a little hard on the film.
The story begins with the arrival of Willa Weston (Curtis) at the corporate headquarters of Octopus, Inc. Run by the bombastic Rod McCain (Kline), she is stunned when she is told the position she was to start that day is now gone because McCain sold the company. Instead, she is sent to Marwood Zoo in England, with the assignment to make it more profitable.
McCain’s dunderheaded son Vince (Kline, in a dual role) immediately falls for Willa and inserts himself in the zoo project. McCain loathes Vince, who is desperate to show his father he can do something (really, anything) right.
At the zoo, the new director Rollo Lee (Cleese) is already putting in place policies that he thinks will make the zoo profitable enough for McCain. He insists to his large crew of zookeepers that the zoo must only have “fierce” creatures because the public craves violence. After an unsuccessful attempt to convince Rollo that some of the gentle animals are actually dangerous, they tell him there is no alternative but to shoot them. They give the animals to Rollo to do the deed, thinking he will never go through with it. They are appalled when they hear gunshots and witness Rollo filling up what appear to be graves.
In reality, Rollo is hiding the animals in his room, because he only wanted to establish authority over his staff. He quickly becomes fond of the creatures. When Willa and Vince call him in the middle of the night, they assume from the noises in the background that he has more than one woman in bed with him.
Rather than putting Willa off, the idea that Rollo seems to routinely bed more than one woman at a time entices her. Vince is disgusted and can’t understand how Willa can like him. Rollo is stunned when he realizes a woman like Willa is attracted to him.
To impress his father, Vince sells sponsorships for the animals and puts big advertising signs all over the animal enclosures. Like Rollo, Willa has become enthralled by the zoo and wants it to make it turn a profit without Vince’s crass machinations.
The arrival of Rod McCain throws the zoo into turmoil. Rollo and the zoo employees join together in a plan to keep the zoo open, with several mishaps, misunderstandings, and disasters ensuing.
No, the movie is nowhere on the same level of A Fish Called Wanda, but it does have its charms. One is noticing some of the Wanda “Easter eggs” strewn throughout the movie. The main characters are all riffs on their original characters in Wanda. For instance, Palin’s character, rather than having a stutter, can’t stop talking.
The Rod McCain character is clearly meant as a satire of businessmen such as Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner (Octopus, Inc. is based in Atlanta). It is kind of hilarious to watch Willa fall for stodgy Rollo because she mistakenly believes he’s irresistible to other women. Some of the situations Rollo falls into recall classic British bedroom farces.
Another little gift is the inclusion in the cast of Ronnie Corbett (The Two Ronnies) who passed away earlier this year, as well as appearances by actors who had minor roles in A Fish Called Wanda.
It’s possible the film didn’t come together as it might have because Cleese decided on reshoots after preview audiences expressed disappointment in the original ending. Robert Young, the director, was unavailable, so they brought in Fred Schepisi to do the reshoots. Schepisi also wanted to scrap the opening sequence. The studio would not allow it. He has claimed that was one reason the movie failed.
As I said, I think they’re a little hard on the film. In spite of any flaws, Fierce Creatures is still a fun and harmless way to pass 90 minutes.