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ZOOmovie: Fierce Creatures (1997)

Fierce CreaturesThis film is based on a lying fiction. All people in the film are impossible characters and I cannot imagine situations similar to this story. For example, have you ever heard about a businessman who didn’t give a damn about noble ideals, or a director who began managing a zoo without any experience with animals and made stupid decisions, or a zoo worker who was insufferably fussy? Or do you know stories about zoos where the fate of the animals was the last thing to be considered? You’ll agree with me that this story is very fictional, so we should regard it as a light comedy only. Fortunately – due to the great actors and scenario – it is a very funny comedy. Or do you have a different opinion? Really? Well, on second thought... maybe I should change the statement of the first sentence.

Following the great success of “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988) John Cleese began writing the script of a new movie in 1992, the shooting of which began in 1995. The two films had more than 20 cast and crew members in common. The main actors were the same too, including another Monty Python member Michael Palin, Hollywood stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Cline – the latter playing two roles: the heartless multi-billionaire businessman Rod McCain, owner of Octopus Inc., and his son, Vince McCain. There was another Monty Python character too, even if his first name was mentioned only: Terry, the tarantula was named after Terry Jones. The scene is Marwood Zoo in London (Marwood is the middle name of John Cleese); in fact Durrell’s Jersey Wildlife Park hosted the film makers.

 The reception of the movie was controversial; many critics compared it to “A Fish Called Wanda” and deemed it weaker. In Rottentomatoes the rate of positive critiques was only 53%. John Cleese, when asked what he would have done differently if he could live his life again, replied: "I wouldn't have married Alyce Faye Eichelberger and I wouldn't have made Fierce Creatures." I am sure he was too strict with himself. Besides being a great comedy, in my opinion it is the best zoo movie as well.

Without serious spoiling, I try to recall the main storyline of the film. Hardcore businessman, Rod McCain (Kevin Kline) tries to create a new business model that can be used for zoos. The first victim of this goal is Marwood Zoo in the UK. His first step is to appoint director Lee Rollo (John Cleese), the retired Hong Kong Police Force officer having no prior experience in the zoo trade but coming with definite ideas. For example he wants to leave only dangerous species in the zoo – which forces the zoo workers to cheat: they try to prove that all animals, including ring-tailed lemurs are fierce creatures. After John Cleese evokes some moments from the brilliant TV series “Fawlty Towers”, his character goes through significant improvement – this is the only truly unbelievable point of the story, usually this kind of incompetent manager doesn’t change too much…  But Rod McCain’s hidden motives are more vicious than we had believed before, later he appoints new managers – his stupid son (also played by Kevin Kline) and Willa Weston (Jamie Lee Curtis) – to make even more chaos. This gives way to other idiotic ideas of zoo development, including Bruce Springsteen’s tortoise, a tiger as advertising media, and new working clothes which make the workers look like plush animals. Finally, there is a – well-known – zoo character, Bugsy (Michael Palin), who is not only an annoyingly pedantic guy, but at the big finish he gets a very important role too.

Speaking with my colleagues about this film revealed that it was much more popular among zoo people than the wider audience. The reason behind this is perhaps because we can better understand many jokes in it. I am sure the script writers had previously studied this background. Nevertheless, there was another positive outcome of the film too: John Cleese became fond of lemurs and a supporter of their conservation, so it was not a surprise when a newly discovered lemur species got its name after the actor: Cleese’s woolly lemur (Avahi cleesei).

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