Comedic magic in movies can be as hard to generate as a bolt of lightning, and even more difficult to replicate. But that never stops people from trying, as evidenced by Fierce Creatures.

The film was released on Jan. 24, 1997 and billed as a kind of "spiritual successor" to the 1988 smash hit A Fish Called Wanda, with which it shared a good deal of its DNA.

Both films were written by John Cleese (with Iain Johnstone sharing the writing credit for Fierce Creatures) and featured the same main players: Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Cleese's compatriot from Monty Python, Michael Palin. But where A Fish Called Wanda succeeds triumphantly – it was nominated for three Academy Awards, and named the 39th best British film of the 20th Century by the British Film Institute – Fierce Creatures falls flat. The reasons are as subtle as they are complicated.

The movie tells the story of the Marwood Zoo, a small place filled with lovable creatures, that has been recently acquired by a ruthless Australian business magnate (transparently based on Rupert Murdoch) named Rod McCain (Kline). McCain puts a retired Hong Kong police officer named Rollo Lee (Cleese) in charge of the zoo, and demands that he earn profits of 20%. To do this, Lee decides that because people love violence, the zookeepers must get rid of every animal that's not fierce. The zookeepers, led by Bugsy Malone (Palin) rebel, but Lee refuses to give in.

Meanwhile, business executive Willa Weston (Curtis) has been hired by Rod McCain, and has found herself fending off the amorous advances of McCain's son Vince (also played by Kline). To escape these advances, she manages to convince Rod to put her in charge of the zoo; unfortunately, Vince gets his father to agree to let him join her.

Various hijinks ensue. Rollo pretends to do the job of disposing of some of the zoo animals himself, Vince gets corporate sponsorship for the zoo, and covers the animals and zookeepers in advertisements, and Willa develops a crush on Rollo, because of what she imagines is his incredible sexual prowess. Eventually, Rod himself visits the zoo, and the zookeepers find out he's actually planning to turn the whole thing into a golf course. In the climax, Bugsy accidentally shoots and kills Rod, and to get everybody out of the predicaments they're in, Vince has to impersonate his father Rod, save the zoo, and grant himself control over the entire corporation.

The film was a moderate success when it was released, but it manages to summon little of the comedic magic that elevated A Fish Called Wanda, despite clearly trying to imitate it in many ways.

Like the earlier film, Fierce Creatures casts Cleese as the straight man, gives Klein a big, scene-chewing role (two of them, in fact), makes Curtis into a femme fatale who falls in love with Cleese's character, and lets Palin play an eccentric sidekick. And also like the earlier film, it combines zany antics with an earnest love story (between Curtis and Cleese in both) to create a story with plenty of twists and turns.

Cleese is too good a writer – and the rest of the cast too talented – for things to fall entirely flat. There's plenty of great lines, such as when Cleese's character dryly notes in support of his theory that people love violence that "Mr. Sylvester Stallone did not get where he is today by playing in Jane Austen." And once the capers get going in the second half of the film, there are a number of funny set pieces.

But the absurdist sensibility in A Fish Called Wanda has a sharp edge to it, while much of the humor in Fierce Creatures falls closer to simply being silly. And the characters suffer from being slightly too transparent riffs on the roles from the first film; they aren't as sharply drawn, and come off more like types out of a sketch comedy show than fully realized human beings.

Much of this difficulty is crystalized in the difference between the plots of the two films. A Fish Called Wanda is centered on a crime caper – a group of thieves trying to steal jewels from one another after a successful robbery – while Fierce Creatures is centered on the attempt to save a zoo. This injects a level of sentimentality into the second film that there isn't a whiff of in the first (in which a character eats some live goldfish to make a point) and leads the humor in a more childlike direction.

More subtly, it doesn’t give the characters as much to do. Rather than plotting to double-cross their fellow thieves in order to get their hands on enough money to last a lifetime, the characters here mostly spend their time trying to do something – prevent cute animals from getting killed – that viewers already strongly suspect they're going to be successful in from the beginning. The lack of real conflict creates an absence of tension, which doesn't give the humorous bits much substantive material to use.

At base, comedy comes from conflict, and it's closely tied to tragedy. Surprises make us laugh, as do terrible events turned inside out. A Fish Called Wanda was full of real surprises, horrible events made hilarious, and genuine conflict. Despite all the talent involved in its making, Fierce Creatures doesn't have nearly enough of these ingredients to make it entirely successful.

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