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You can bet that at one point or another, some executive wanted the title to this long-awaited nonsequel to A Fish Called Wanda to be A Lemur Called Rollo (since the story does include such a character). That wouldn't have been the most commercial of names, but then again, neither is Fierce Creatures, which is what it actually ended up being called. Still, whether as Rollo or Creatures, this film is the same thing: a lovely little comedy that, one hopes, will buck the odds and find an audience.

Despite the advantage of being the successor to the second-highest-grossing British film ever, Fierce Creatures arrives with a cart full of problematic luggage. First is the issue of its 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. Still, 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. The original director, Robert Young -- not to be confused with Robert M. Young, director of Dominick and Eugene -- was replaced by Fred Schepisi, who, Roxanne notwithstanding, hardly seems the obvious choice for a (more or less) screwball comedy.

Though I was never quite as knocked out by Wanda as the rest of the world, I found Fierce Creatures to be quite funny -- much more in the gentle tradition of the 1950s Ealing comedies than Wanda, featuring the sort of ensemble of lovable eccentrics that was a hallmark of those classics.

The story begins when Rod McCain (Kevin Kline) -- an evil Australian magnate who's clearly patterned on Rupert Murdoch -- finds that he's acquired a small British zoo. Since McCain requires that each of his operations generate at least a 20 percent annual return, a figure the zoo doesn't begin to approach, he dispatches Hong Kong TV executive Rollo Lee (John Cleese) to take over the facility.

Rollo immediately tries to assert his authority by playing the tough guy: Since the public wants entertainment with violence, he says, the zoo must immediately get rid of all its non-fierce creatures. And when the zookeepers tell him there's no place to transfer the milder animals, Rollo shows he means business by taking five of the most adorable beasts out back and shooting them.

Well, actually, he pretends to shoot them. I'm not giving much away here: 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 actually gives all five the run of his bedroom, barely leaving space for himself.

Just as the zoo folk are beginning to realize what a softy Rollo really is, his authority is undercut by the arrival of Vince McCain (Kline again), Rod's idiot son, 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 mainly 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. In general, the characters follow the same general pattern as in Wanda. Cleese's Rollo is a bit more pathetic (and somewhat better drawn) than his barrister Archie was in Wanda. 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 up. (Presumably, the producers made sure that there's 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 McCain is thoroughly loathsome. (Would that this had been a Fox project. One wonders if Murdoch would have distributed this vicious lampooning of himself if he thought it would make money. McCain certainly would have.) And Kline's dual role makes the character's viciousness more acceptable: The most extreme scenes involve Kline (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 seems to mistake a sea lion for the late, lamented Norwegian blue parrot of the famous Monty Python sketch "The Pet Shop": "Wonderful animals, sea lions," he says nonsensically, "beautiful plumage."

It's hard to believe this film was extensively reworked; the seams don't show at all. Nor can I figure out what part 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 to their next collaboration a bit sooner. Though Kline and Curtis don't show the passage of the years, Cleese and Palin, the oldest of the four, clearly do. (Blame it on British cooking.) 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 gentlemen and the dangerously deranged. In Wanda and Creatures he externalized his mad aspects and gave them to Kline's characters, keeping his harassed middle-class aspects for himself. The two provide a tension that could profitably power several more films.

-- Andy Klein

Fierce Creatures.
Directed by Robert Young and Fred Schepisi. With John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin.

Rated RG-13.
93 minutes.

 
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