The horror! The horror! The fat! The fat!
Somewhere, beyond the reach of civilization, someone has gone out of control and is breaking all bounds. It's Marlon Brando and he's -- AIEEEEEEEEEEE! -- doing his Sydney Greenstreet imitation.
Big as the house that squashed the Wicked Witch of the East, occasionally painted white so that he resembles a big dish of wiggly vanilla pudding and offering a prissy Etonian accent that sounds just like Sir James M. Barrie's valet, Brando essays an impersonation that makes his jungle-mad Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now" seem like the very model of decorum.
The movie isn't actually a derivative of "Heart of Darkness," it only seems that way. In fact, I doubt the thematic resemblances are coincidental. But the source of this tale is a long-forgot anti-vivisectionist novel by H. G. Wells that occasionally makes it to the cinema (last time: 1977, with Burt Lancaster and Michael Crawford in what I take to be the Brando-David Thewlis roles).
This one is Mad Scientist Mutation No. 435/subgenre tropics/subsubgenre species crossbreeding. Brando's Dr. Moreau appears to be attempting to locate the genetic source for man's aggression and violence, but the science is never clearly explained. Mainly what he's doing is playing a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with real tails and real donkeys -- also, cats, bears, lions, monkeys and men, whom he's scrambled genetically or surgically so that his island looks like a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" put on by the patients of an asylum. Thought for possible Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative piece: Is Dr. Moreau the one behind the Giant Baby? Must check out.
Into this tropic hell comes the tall, commanding, above all rational figure of Val Kilmer, right? Wrong. Actually, Kilmer is one of the crazies. It's Thewlis, possibly the most physically grotesque human figure in all of movies, a long, tall, gangly fletch of a man who looks already crossbred to a whooping crane without Dr. Moreau's ministrations. They've stuck him in the heroic role of the innocent outsider who's present at the apocalypse. The strangeness of Thewlis' assignment is extreme, when one considers that originally the Pooh-bear actor Rob "Cuddles" Morrow was to play the part: Can you imagine any role anywhere that could be played by both men? (David Thewlis in "Indecent Exposure"! That's as close as I can get.)
Thewlis is at least a disciplined professional doing his honest day's labor in the hot sun. Kilmer, meanwhile, is trying to out-ham Marlon Brando, which is like trying to outhoot the Hooters Girls. Brando comes on as if he's jovially insane from having watched too many of his own recent films. That would make anybody nuts. Odder still, he seems to have borrowed the Popemobile for transportation as he travels majestically among the dog-boys and girls. But, as he learns, it isn't nice to fool with Mother Nature: She bites back. The plot turns on the revenge of the dog-boys who, once they figure out the doc's mechanism of control, defuse it and express their own inner bestiality.
At the same time, a number of decent actors -- Ron Perlman for one, Temura Morrison of "Once Were Warriors" for another -- are lost behind their dog-boy faces. The one impressive member of the cast is a very tiny man who appears in a wordless role as Dr. Moreau's pet. I mean very tiny: I've never seen a man so tiny.
Poor old John Frankenheimer, who took over the troubled production on location after another director had fled. Frankenheimer, the distinguished director of "The Manchurian Candidate," "Seconds" and a number of other early-'60s riveters -- got the movie made on the force of his sheer professionalism against the runaway egos of the cast and has created something that is at least compelling at its most superficial level, though it never triumphs over the rotting splendor of its own folly. He and the tiny man deserved much better than they got. What we deserved was "The Island of Jeanne Moreau." That I'd pay to see.
'The Island of Dr. Moreau'
Starring Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer and David Thewlis
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Released by New Line
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 8/23/96