It certainly isn't remembered fondly by most animal lovers, but Charles Crichton's A Fish Called Wanda (1988) remains a beloved comedy classic on both sides of the pond. Headlined by John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline (who earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role), our story centers around a jewel heist sprinkled liberally with backstabbing, seduction, revenge and other popular favorites. There aren't many fans of comedy that haven't seen it, but those who enjoy twists, turns and quirky characters---seen so often in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, for example---should feel right at home.
It's obvious from the first scene onward, but the main reason A Fish Called Wanda works so well is due to the lead performers and the characters they inhabit. George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) plans the heist with Ken Pile (Palin), a stuttering animal lover and hitman. Also involved in the robbery are Wanda Gershwitz (Curtis) and Otto West (Kline), who are romantically involved but pose as brother and sister. Things go smoothly...that is, until the thieves betray one another for the loot. George's lawyer, Archibald Leach (Cleese), is eventually seduced by Wanda for the whereabouts of the recently-hidden valuables; in the meantime, Otto plans to get the information from Ken by threatening to eat his prized tropical fish. Somewhere along the way, Ken also disguises himself as a Rastafarian and a few Yorkshire Terriers get dispatched. Ouch.
Written by Cleese, nearly every scene crackles with energy and wit; even more, the comedy often works on more than one level. Fans of Cleese's own Fawlty Towers will find his dry but consistent humor on full display here, especially during the rampant character interaction. Director Charles Crichton balances the film's strengths quite nicely, even though he hadn't helmed a feature film in roughly 20 years. I was a bit too young to see the film theatrically, but I remember being thoroughly confused by the original poster. Like many others, I eventually saw the light.
It's certainly taken long enough, as this 2-Disc Collector's Edition has been cursed with months and months of delays (especially since other regions have had a Special Edition for years). Regardless of the holdup, fans of A Fish Called Wanda should certainly find this upgrade worth the wait, as the original 2000 non-anamorphic release has all but worn out its welcome. The technical presentation is an improvement but still mildly disappointing, while the solid assortment of bonus features should help soften the blow. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and 16x9 enhanced for widescreen displays, A Fish Called Wanda looks better than the previous non-anamorphic release but still slightly disappointing. The color palette is generally drab and inconsistent; skin tones often look slightly reddish, for example, but this may be due to the source material. A bit of dirt can also be spotted in certain scenes, though no major digital problems (edge enhancement, etc.) were detected. The transfer is also slightly window-boxed on all four sides, though not quite to the extent of certain Criterion discs. Perhaps this is the best the film will ever look on DVD, but there's still some room for improvement.
Audio is presented in the viewer's choice of English Dolby Digital 5.1 or Mono, French Dolby Surround 2.0 and Spanish Mono. The English tracks are relatively straightforward, boasting clear dialogue and music cues throughout. A portion of the film's dialogue seems a bit thin; most likely, this is also due to the source material. English, French and Spanish subtitles, as well as Closed Captions, are included during the main feature only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
Seen above, the relatively basic menu designs feature a simple design and smooth navigation. The 108-minute main feature has been divided into roughly two dozen chapters, while no apparent layer change was detected during playback. This two-disc release is housed in a standard black hinged keepcase; also included is an attractive slipcover and a booklet with character profiles and fun facts.
Fans of A Fish Called Wanda should be pleased with the extras included here, many of which feature participation from the cast and crew. Leading things off on Disc 1 is a feature-length Audio Commentary with John Cleese; though it's as dry as one might expect, Cleese does an excellent job of keeping things interesting. Surprisingly, he doesn't always go for laughs, delivering plenty of interesting stories about the film's production and his memories of director Charles Crichton. Also running alongside the film is an optional Trivia Track, featuring additional snippets about the film and sea life in general. It's a good complement to the Cleese commentary, and they're probably best experienced together.
Disc 2 is oddly organized but full of entertaining extras. The best starting point is A Message From John Cleese (4:55), a modest dose of the actor's dry wit. More substantial is the new documentary, "Something Fishy" (30:30, below left), which serves as a nice retrospective piece filled with comments from the cast and crew. While there's a bit of overlap between this and the commentary track on Disc 1, fans of the film should enjoy checking this one out. Crichton is given plenty of praise by the cast and crew, who frequently ribbed him about his long absence from film directing.
The remainder of the extras are herded under a separate "Special Features" section, leading off with a collection of brief Deleted and Alternate Scenes (26 clips, 29:37 total), featuring an optional introduction by John Cleese. It's nice to finally see some new material after nearly twenty years (including an alternate ending), and the bulk of what's here is minor but entertaining. Each scene is prefaced by Cleese explaining why they didn't make the final cut---and though the footage is presented in rough but finished form, this collection is certainly worth watching.
Three featurettes are up next, including "John Cleese's First Farewell Performance" (18:11), "Farewell Featurette: John Cleese" (29:51) and
"Kulture Vulture" (16:31). "Farewell Performance" (above right) and "Farewell Featuette" are vintage pieces featuring Cleese, who discusses his comedic style and previous roles during several interviews. Some of these chats are played for laughs, but there's some good info here (NOTE: On the Region 2 Special Edition, these two featurettes were combined into one). "Kulture Vulture" (known on the Region 2 release as "Fish You Were Here") is a brief tour of some of the film's locations, though the overlap from other featurettes renders this one almost obsolete.
Winding things down is "Mug Shots", a still gallery divided into "Key Stills", "Behind the Scenes", "Deleted Scenes", "The Stars" and "Publicity Images"; the film's Theatrical Trailer (1:28) and a few Previews for other MGM releases. At least one Easter Egg was found on Disc 2, featuring an interview snippet with Jamie Lee Curtis that's interrupted by a phone call.
All bonus features are presented in 1.33:1 and widescreen aspect ratios, though only a portion are 16x9 enhanced. As mentioned earlier, they don't seem to include optional subtitles or Closed Captioning support.
It's long overdue, but most fans should find this 2-Disc Collector's Edition of A Fish Called Wanda worth the wait. The film has aged fairly well over the past 19 years, mainly due to the strong performances and tight pacing. The DVD's technical presentation isn't quite as good as expected, but the extensive assortment of bonus features combines vintage material with plenty of retrospective remarks from the cast. It's not a perfectly well-rounded release, but owners of the previous disc can certainly consider this double-dip a worthy upgrade. Whether you're getting it on release day or adding it to your Christmas list, make sure you don't pass this one up. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.