Edward Bloom (played as a young man by Ewan McGregor and as an adult by Albert
Finney) has always been a purveyor of tall tales. Enjoying the art of telling
stories, Edward has enchanted thousands with his fantastic accounts of growing
up, but has severely alienated his son, Will (Billy Crudup).
When Edward is in the final stages of a losing battle with cancer, Will returns
home at the urging of his mother, Sandy (Jessica Lange), to confront his father. While there, he
learns the truth behind the myths of Edward's life that he was raised to
believe and crushed to learn were fabricated. As Will probes deeper into
Edward's past, the stories of his youth come flooding back, allowing Will the
chance to understand where Edward's desire to cover the truth came from.
"Big Fish" (IMDb listing) is director Tim Burton's first step back into the light since
tackling the critically drubbed, audience polarizing "Planet Of The Apes"
remake. Admittedly, I was a fan of Burton's loopy vision for his "Apes" motion
picture, but I understood that the once potent magic that Burton always seems to
keep close to him was buried under big stars, bigger budgets, and nonstop
special effects. "Fish" returns Burton to the safe harbor of the more personal
stories he used to make, including "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood." "Fish"
has the Burtonesque formula intact: sophisticated fantasy mixing with harsh
realities. And the film plays to the director's strengths in every possible way.
"Fish" is filled with absurdity and sideshow visuals, features big performances,
and maintains a fanciful tone even when the main plot thread concerns a slow
death from cancer. Throw in a supporting performance from 7'6'' actor Matthew
McGrory as a friendly giant named Karl, and you have a bizarre yet archetypal
Burton film all the way.
The theme of the picture is finding the reality in fabrication, and how
sometimes, a tall tale helps protect the soul better than the truth ever could.
Burton cradles this theme in his arms, creating an eye-popping visual scheme for
each of Edward's stories. Radiantly acted with great zeal by Ewan McGregor, the
fantasy sequences are what keep "Fish" from floundering. Burton enjoys
presenting the stories with enormity; Edward's journey to a forgotten
southern town where shoes aren't welcome, a war sequence where Edward meets a
conjoined twin singing duo, and his romancing of Sandy, which is a yellow
daffodil poem to the art of stealing another man's girl. Burton is clearly more
at ease with the fantasy sequences, and they play at a much deeper significance
than the modern day struggle of Will trying to figure out his father's past. Not
that this section of the film is faulty; Crudup and Finney are wonderful, but
how can they compete with giants, Danny DeVito as a circus ringmaster/werewolf,
and Steve Buscemi robbing a bankrupt bank? Nothing Burton could throw on the
screen could compete with that.
I can't say that I was emotionally moved by the conclusion of "Big Fish." The
last 20 minutes has Will coming to terms with his father's accounts, and Burton
ties up the loose ends with an enchanting culmination that sprinkles a little
somber magic on the proceedings. Unlike "Scissorhands," the mythmaking in "Fish"
doesn't find a dreamlike balance with reality in the end, and the lack of a
focal point for the story ends up taking the sting out of the climactic
catharsis. "Big Fish" is better as a toned down, return to form Tim Burton film
than a regular feature, and should be appreciated as such. It's good to see
the filmmaker step out and breathe deeply from behind the lavish enterprises he
usually finds himself in.
Filmfodder Grade: B+