In Defence Of… Fierce Creatures

The much-maligned British 1997 comedy farce is a lot more fun than humourless film critics would like you to think.

If Fierce Creatures is remembered at all, it tends to be as the disastrous follow up to A Fish Called Wanda – as hated by critics and audiences as that earlier film was loved and the subject of major reshoots that went on for longer than the entire production schedule of many a film, eventually resulting in a movie that no one was happy with – not original director Robert Young, his reshoot replacement Fred Schepisi or writer/star John Cleese, who is on record as saying that making the film is one of his few regrets.  The film is, in short, widely considered to be a complete failure.

Yet like the contrary character that I apparently am, I have to say that I rather enjoyed Fierce Creatures – much more so than its predecessor, which I never really saw the appeal of. Admittedly, one of the reasons that I like this film is probably the same reason so many critics of the time – and now – hated it. It’s essentially an old school lightweight farce that could have been made in the 1960s or 1970s, complete with Carry On film humour that includes numerous double entendres, general absurdity and good-natured comedy. It’s oddly charming – but oddly charming, unpretentious comedies rarely seem to appeal to film critics who weirdly believe that such work is somehow without both substance and value, and will only respect a comedy that isn’t trying to make you laugh, it seems. This, alongside the kind of widely-reported production values that tend to damn a film before anyone has even seen it, is probably why the movie has been so widely dismissed. Yet like many a comedy film that critics hate, it’s really not that bad if all you want is 90 minutes or so of disposable entertainment – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with expecting nothing more from a movie. Not everything needs to be ‘elevated’.

Reuniting Cleese with his …Wanda co-stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin, the film is also very, very British and that probably did it no favours with either the critics in its own country – who really, really hate populist British comedy – or elsewhere. Comedy, perhaps more than anything, is often very wedded to national tastes and it’s not a surprise that other than major American films, comedy rarely travels well. In this case, even the inclusion of two US stars – catapulted in as fish out of water Americans into the sort of twee English world that you never see on film anymore – doesn’t help because it’s all too clear that they are only there to sell the film to a global audience in much the way that old British B-movies would hire a past-their-prime US star in the hope of securing an American release.

In this case, Jamie Lee Curtis is ambitious businesswoman Willa Weston, who arrives to take up a high-powered job with Rupert Murdoch clone Rod McCain (Kline), only to find that the company she is due to head had already been sold. Instead, she is shipped to England to run Marwood Zoo, another recent business acquisition by McCain, who also sends his hopeless and arrogant son Vince (also played by Kline) along.  Zoo director Rollo Lee (Cleese), instructed to boost profits by any means necessary, has already caused unrest with his keepers by insisting that the zoo should only stock money-making fierce animals (and is understandably unconvinced by attempts to suggest that meerkats and other cuddly creatures are actually vicious killers) and Vince – who hates animals – soon makes things worse, as he attempts to commercialise things with celebrity sponsorship (without bothering to ask said celebrities first) and advertising everywhere. Meanwhile, Willa starts to fall in love with the little zoo and its gangling director (who gains an unwarranted reputation as the holder of orgies with the female keepers), even as Vince robs it blind.  When it becomes clear that Rod McCain plans to close the zoo and turn it into a golf course, drastic measures are called for…

While the anti-corporate message is sometimes – okay, frequently – rather heavy-handed in presentation, Fierce Creatures is surprisingly engaging. Cleese is at his frustrated, barely in control best, and brings that element of chaotic, hysterical farce that inhabits his best characters to the proceedings that make the whole movie a lot of fun. Of course, it’s extraordinarily old-fashioned, with scenes of people hiding, half-dressed, in closets and a lot of jokes around Curtis’ breasts that lend the movie a certain 1970s sex comedy feel. This is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned, as it adds to that quaintly old fashioned style, but you can see why pompous critics who still consider the Confessions films to be utterly worthless would be aghast. This wasn’t the British cinema that they wanted in 1977 and they certainly were not going to stand for it two decades later. Adding to that nostalgic feel is a supporting cast that includes familiar British light comedy faces Ronnie Corbett, Robert Lindsay and Derek Griffiths (as well as Carey Lowell, bringing an additional American presence and yet more cleavage to the film).

Sure, this is not a sophisticated comedy, but do we always need that? Can’t comedy sometimes just be funny without having to confirm our intellectual superiority?  Of course, it’s hard to tell just how much of the film is the original version and how much the reshoots but that could be argued as being to the film’s credit – after all, if it all hangs together and works as a complete story, what does it matter to anyone apart from the filmmakers? We sometimes get too hung up on stories about ‘difficult’ productions as if it is a guarantee of awfulness – yet if a movie isn’t working, surely the fact that it was stopped, fixed and re-started should be a good thing.

I’d actually avoided watching this film for almost twenty years, simply because of its reputation and my disinterest in its predecessor. But that was a mistake. If you’ve done likewise, I would suggest that it’s worth a look. Admittedly, if you are not a fan of old-school British farces like Not Now Darling, then much of the slapstick, absurdity and ludicrous contrivances on display here will probably not appeal to you very much. But if you do like those vintage comedies – and you know what, I’m guessing that if you are a Reprobate reader, you probably do –  then this should be right up your street.


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One comment

  1. The novelisation of Fierce Creatures states that Rollo Lee changed his surname from Leach, and that he is the brother of Archie Leach, Cleese’s character in Wanda. (Named after Cary Grant, of course.)

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