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 fantastical accounts of growing up, but in the process he 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 and learn 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” 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 enormously; starting with 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 bankr 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 climatic catharsis. “Big Fish” is better as a toned down, return to form Tim Burton film than a regular feature, and should be appreciated just as such. It’s good to see the filmmaker step out and breathe deeply from behind the lavish enterprises he usually finds himself in.Rating: B+