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4 items from 1997

Film review: 'Wind in the Willows'

31 October 1997 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

Kenneth Grahame's enduring children's classic meets Monty Python in Terry Jones' energetic and whimsically eccentric version of "The Wind in the Willows".

While things get a tad murky and chaotic toward the end, terrific characterizations -- Jones recruited former Flying Circus mates Eric Idle, John Cleese and Michael Palin to do their colorful stuff -- help keep things light and amusing.

Entering an indifferent family feature market after spending a prolonged period on the shelf, it's not likely the Columbia release will generate a flurry of moviegoing activity, but it could do some breezy business once it blows into video stores.

Jones cleverly eschews animations and the Jim Henson's Creature Shop route in favor of good old-fashioned human beings with minimal animal accouterments to convey the intriguing inhabitants of Grahame's English countryside.

There's the ever-squinting Mole (Steve Coogan), whose subterranean home has been destroyed by those nasty Weasels. Accompanied by good friend Rat (Idle) and the crusty but wise old Badger (Nicol Williamson), Mole pays a visit to the flamboyant, motor car-obsessed Mr. Toad (Jones), who has been scammed out of the stately Toad Hall by the diabolical Chief Weasel (Anthony Sher).

Mole, Rat and company race to stop the slippery characters in their plot to level their idyllic terrain and transform it into a heavily industrialized, Weasels-Only zone.

Given the novel's original turn-of-the-century publication, there are all sorts of sociopolitical interpretations to be made here, but Jones, aside from referring to the Weasels as "Thatcher's children" in the press notes, steers clear of heavy-handedness.

Instead, he presents a classic good vs. evil scenario that is spiced up by a few goofy song-and-dance numbers and a whole slew of seasoned performances. In addition to entertaining turns by Jones, Idle, Williamson and Sher, Cleese is on hand as Mr. Toad's not-so-helpful Lawyer. Palin rises to the occasion as the Sun.

Although things begin to run out of steam during a prolonged railroad sequence, there's plenty to appreciate. Doing double duty, production and costume designer James Acheson dresses the characters in a British music hall assortment of stripes, checks and plaids, while the architecture is reminiscent of fellow Python member Terry Gilliam's Rube Goldberg-style animation.


Sony Pictures Releasing

Columbia Pictures

Allied Filmmakers presents

A John Goldstone production

Director-screenwriter: Terry Jones

From the novel "The Wind in the Willows":

by Kenneth Grahame

Producers: John Goldstone & Jake Eberts

Director of photography: David Tattersall

Production and costume designer:

James Acheson

Editor: Julian Doyle

Music score: John Du Prez

Original music and songs: John Du Prez,

Terry Jones, Andre Jacquemin,

Dave Howman



Mole: Steve Coogan

Rat: Eric Idle

Toad: Terry Jones

Chief Weasel: Anthony Sher

Badger: Nicol Williamson

Mr. Toad's Lawyer: John Cleese

Judge: Stephen Fry

The Sun: Michael Palin

Running time -- 87 minutes

MPAA rating: G


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Film review: 'Swan Princess: Escape'

21 July 1997 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

A sequel to 1994's equally uninspired "The Swan Princess", Legacy Releasing's "The Swan Princess: Escape From Castle Mountain," is bland family fare.

Helmed by former Disney director Richard Rich ("The Fox and the Hound"), the further adventures of Prince Derek and Princess Odette are a royal bore, offering up flat, cheaply produced animation and similarly dull characterizations.

Loosely based on the German fable that inspired "Swan Lake", "Swan Princess" is again set in an enchanted kingdom inhabited by the prince (voice of Douglas Sills) and princess (Michelle Nicastro); the cantankerous Queen Uberta (Christy Landers); Jean-Bob Donald Sage Mackay), a French frog claiming to be a cursed prince; Speed the Turtle (Doug Stone); and the imaginatively named Puffin (Steve Vinovich).

Their reasonably idyllic existence is interrupted by the evil Clavius (Jake Williamson), who, coveting a magic orb hidden deep within the castle, disguises himself as a clown and kidnaps the queen for ransom on her 50th birthday.

Given the high standards set by Rich's former company, this is below-par stuff. While the original "Swan Princess" at least boasted some colorful voice work from the likes of Jack Palance, John Cleese and Steven Wright, the sequel is strictly a no-name affair, and although the cast is earnest, their work is unremarkable.

Likewise, the picture's forgettable songs and limited, throwback Saturday morning cartoon-level animation -- the shaky kind where one character is motionless while the other talks -- comprise the sort of production values that make other pale imitations lively by comparison.


Legacy Releasing

Nest Entertainment,

Seldon O. Young, Jared F. Brown

and K. Douglas Martin present

a Rich Animation Studios production

A Richard Rich film

Director Richard Rich

Producers Richard Rich, Jared F. Brown

Executive producers Seldon O. Young,

Jared F. Brown, K. Douglas Martin

Screenwriter Brian Nissen

Story Richard Rich, Brian Nissen

Original score Lex de Azevedo

Songs Lex De Azevedo, Clive Romney



Odette Michelle Nicastro

Derek Douglas Sills

Clavius Jake Williamson

Uberta :Christy Landers

Jean-Bob Donald Sage MacKay

Speed Doug Stone

Puffin Steve Vinovich

Knuckles Joey Camen

Running time -- 75 minutes

MPAA rating: G


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Film review: 'George of the Jungle'

14 July 1997 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

Tap those bongos now for "George, George, George of the Jungle," as Disney's vine-swinging, long-haired inhabitant of the deep bush catapults into action in this deliriously daffy family film, starring Brendan Fraser as the good-hearted but accident-prone George. The word-of-mouth beat will travel far and wide as Buena Vista should tap a roar of approval among kids, as well as we more subversive taller people, for this brainy dumb-stuff.

From the fertile and slyly satiric imagination of the late Jay Ward, who developed the "George of the Jungle" characters into a memorable late-1960s cartoon series, the screenwriting duo of Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells has sagely transmogrified "George" to a contemporary jungle man, replete with many of the same problems the modern male is confronted with -- namely the incursions of the civilized world. To George's '90s treehouse abode come not explorers and slavers but, rather, a pair of rich twits (Leslie Mann, Thomas Haden Church), a Brahmin couple from San Francisco who are on a prenuptial safari. Goosed with some daffy, albeit prototypical comic characters such as two dunderheaded poachers and some devilishly deadpan guides who are great levelers of the simple safari folks' pretensions, "George" is a nimble blend of high-flying farce and screwy social satire.

For the film scholars in attendance too young to have savored the delights of such ancient comedy classics as "Crocodile Dundee II", there's even a high-wire, farcical midsection where George is swept away to the City by the Bay when the uppity Ursula decides he is the man for her. While Ursula tries to outfit George in the finery and ways of her tony upbringing, he of course takes a more direct approach to the mores and nuances of San Francisco high life. Most wonderfully, it's snooty San Francisco that takes it on the chin in this breezy send-up of modern-day life.

Will George escape San Francisco unscathed by the unnatural ways and odd conventions of 20th century sophistication? Will he swing freely with this honor and integrity intact among his good friends the wise Ape, the tookie tookie bird and his trusty elephant, Shep? What will gentle George learn about love? Without tipping off the plot to all the development people out there who can't figure out where the "whammy" points are, let's just say that it's George, not that Greek muscleman, who will most likely emerge as Disney's most potent and likable summer hero.

Since it's not our policy to bray negatively on a movie that boasts an elephant that scampers and bounds around like a big puppy, we'll merely mention that the visual special effects under the supervision of Tim Landry are expert and inspired. In fact, director Sam Weisman's balancing act between the zany story and the clever technical contributions is sharp and sweet. Best of all, credit to Fraser for his high-flying, good-hearted performance as gentle, heroic George.

Cast a net of praise also around Mann and Church for their nutty performances as the ultra-snooty couple and to John Cleese for his Tory-ish voicing of an ape named Ape. The other players are a similarly inspired and off-the-wall bunch, including Richard Roundtree as a condescending guide and, of course, the tweedle-dumb and tweedle-dumber comic bad-guy duo of Greg Cruttwell and Abraham Benrubi.

Marc Shaiman's zesty music, braced by the jaunty theme song, has enough bounce and pizazz to launch a score of toe-tappers' conventions.


Buena Vista

Walt Disney Pictures

Producers David Hoberman,

Jordan Kerner, Jon Avnet

Director Sam Weisman

Screenwriters Dana Olsen, Audrey Wells

Story Dana Olsen

Based upon characters created by Jay Ward

Director of photography Thomas Ackerman

Production designer Stephen Marsh

Editors Stuart Pappe, Roger Bondelli

Music Marc Shaiman

Executive producer C. Tad Devlin

Visual effects supervisor Tim Landry

Co-producer Lou Arkoff

Costume designer Lisa Jensen

Casting Amanda Mackey Johnson,

Cathy Sandrich

Production sound David Kelson



George Brendan Fraser

Ursula Stanhope Leslie Mann

Lyle Van de Groot Thomas Haden Church

Kwame Richard Roundtree

Max Greg Cruttwell

Thor Abraham Benrubi

Beatrice Stanhope Holland Taylor

Betsy Kelly Miller

Arthur Stanhope John Bennett Perry

Voice of Ape John Cleese

Running time -- 92 minutes

MPAA rating: PG


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Film review: 'Fierce Creatures'

21 January 1997 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

Fiercely uneven but a pleasantly diverting creature nonetheless, co-producer/co-writer/co-star John Cleese's long-awaited follow-up to the worldwide hit "A Fish Called Wanda" reunites the four principal actors of that 1988 British comedy, but it's unlikely this Universal release will make the same impact as its $200 million-grossing progenitor.

Originally slated for a 1996 release, "Fierce Creatures" was pulled after poor test screenings and reworked with a new director at the helm. Robert Young(with Cleese unofficially co-directing) was responsible for the first version, while Fred Schepisi came in for round two, with all the major performers involved in the re-shoots and additions.

A rare reteaming of a cast for a nonsequel, "Fierce Creatures" is a furry, screwballish tale of a fictional zoo in England that centers on the conflict between commercialization and the traditional mandate for such institutions. When the profit-squeezing tycoon who heads a multinational conglomerate buys Marwood Zoo, the animal keepers are distressed because the new director (Cleese) has orders to increase attendance no matter how drastic and cruel the tactics.

The film's setup is clunky but not without moments of wit and hilarity. The introduction of the corporate players played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline (who won a best supporting actor Oscar for "Wanda") revolves around his desire for her and her wearing of revealing outfits. At the zoo, before the full onslaught of bottom-line-increasing tactics, Cleese's character informs the keepers that denizens not deemed dangerous enough will be removed.

The idea is the public wants to be scared and entertained, and it does not go over well with the dedicated zoo employees. Michael Palin plays one such shocked gentle heart, and the scheme to make anteaters, lemurs and other cute and cuddly critters into marquee maneaters is an inspired development that young and old viewers should delight in.

A serious message of conservation and a general plea for the proper treatment and respect for animals contrasts well with the none-too-subtle jabs at product placement in the movies and blatant plugs for sponsors in tourist attractions.

While Klein's cynical son-of-the-boss covets Curtis' character, she is attracted to Cleese's decent bloke doing his job. When she has an "imprinting" with a formidable-but-sensitive gorilla, the odds are tipped in favor of the animal lovers.

Many of the ongoing gags are well-executed but not as fresh or memorable as the inspired lunacy of "Wanda". Klein in makeup plays his character's father, the gaseous scoundrel whose ruthless running of Octopus Inc. is a welcome intrusion in the story at several points. Both looking great, Curtis and Cleese have been better, but their chemistry is potent enough to pull the film through some flat stretches.

Overall, the screenplay by Cleese and British film journalist and broadcaster Iain Johnstone has a few choice lines. Particularly in several elaborate sequences, the direction of the many animals (from zebras and meerkats to tigers and tarantulas) is marvelous.

A generous pat on the head to cinematographer Adrian Biddle ("101 Dalmatians") is in order, as well as well-deserved treats for production designer Roger Murray-Leach ("A Fish Called Wanda") and the creature trainers.


Universal Pictures

A Fish Prods./Jersey Films production

Directors:Robert Young, Fred Schepisi

Producers:Michael Shamberg, John Cleese

Executive producer:Steve Abbott

Writers:John Cleese, Iain Johnstone

Co-producer:Patricia Carr

Directors of photography:Adrian Biddle, Ian Baker

Music:Jerry Goldsmith

Editor:Robert Gibson

Production designer:Roger Murray-Leach

Costume designer:Hazel Pethig

Casting:Priscilla John



Rollo Lee:John Cleese

Willa Weston:Jamie Lee Curtis

Vince McCain/Rod McCain:Kevin Kline

Bugsy Malone:Michael Palin

Reggie Sealions:Ronnie Corbett

Running time -- 93 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13


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