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BIG FISH (PG-13) (2003)

Columbia Pictures

Official Site

Director: Tim Burton

Producers: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Richard D. Zanuck

Written by: John August; based on the novel by Daniel Wallace

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter

Rating: (Hsu)


From the opening scenes of Big Fish, the audience is drawn into the elaborate fantasy world of Tim Burton. The camera follows a large, rather ugly fish as it swims through beautiful blue waters, reminiscent of Finding Nemo. The story that follows is just as magical and just as lovely.

Tim Burton has summoned his unique brand of creativity once again, carefully placing his contraptions, gadgets, and off-the-wall characters to give life to Daniel Wallace’s book. They are enlisted to explain the history of a man who loves to embellish his stories so much that lines between fact and fiction are blurred.

At the heart of this movie is a father and son story. Elderly Edward Bloom (Finney) is on his deathbed, and son William (Crudup) has come to try for one last time to obtain from his father the true story of his past. He wishes to know what really happened, even if it is not glamorous.

Edward, however, persists in standing behind his stories, and continues to tell them to anyone who will listen. They’re fascinating tales, some taking place when he’s a boy, but mostly of his adventures as a young man (McGregor). Edward begins life in the small town of Ashton, and meets a witch (Carter) who tells him how he will die. Knowing now that anything else will not kill him, Edward eventually leaves town to explore the rest of the world and seek adventure. Along the way, he finds himself in fantastic settings including a spooky forest with trees that snatch at passers-by, the peculiar town of Spectre where no one wears shoes, and a rowdy circus filled with freaks and trained animals. Not only are the places unusual; the people he meets are even more unbelievable. However, being a friendly guy, Edward Bloom befriends them all.

Most importantly, while he is on his travels, Edward meets the love of his wife Sandra (Lohman and Lange). The relationship between Edward and Sandra is such a sweet one that it almost upstages the father-son storyline. But perhaps that’s the point, because the father-son story is dependent on a love story between William’s parents.

Whenever the movie strays to the past, everything becomes more vivid. The colors are bold and glowing, and the characters are larger than life. The world of Edward Bloom is entrancing and all his audiences, including us, are held spellbound and expectant. These stories of Edward’s past are not told chronologically, but are woven in and out of the present story with William becoming increasingly upset that he and his father are strangers who do not understand the truths of each others’ lives.

Danny Elfman, who has collaborated with Burton on many past projects including The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, has once again provided a soundtrack that appropriately enhances the images on screen.

The theme of a big fish is evident throughout the film, referring to the tall-tale size of the stories, the alleged fish that swims in the creek, and referring also to Edward Bloom, the embodiment of a legend.

—Kelly Hsu

1. That Fish May Have Two Heads, But All It Needs Is Love!

Enter the shrine of the Loveable Freak, where the grotesque mingles freely with the fey, producing heart-tugging hybrids of the endearingly deformed. Brothers and Sisters, pity these uncanny cuties! All they care about is faithfully serving their masters, finding their way “home,” or, in some cases, being “understood.” Behold E.T.! Behold the legion of loveable creatures in Star Wars! Behold, Frodo the Hobbit!

The Loveable Freak has a lengthy legacy in movie history, ranging from Chaplin’s Tramp through various characters in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Contemporary devotees of this cult include directors still passing as sheltered, imaginative “boy geniuses” who construct elaborate, precious, and sometimes ingrown, magical worlds. Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) and Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!) come to mind. For even bigger fish in this genre, consider George Lucas (Star Wars), Steven Spielberg (almost every film he has ever made), and Peter Jackson, whose Lord Of The Rings is the culmination of his obsession with Tolkien’s epic since childhood.

Tim Burton’s films are a virtual catalogue of loveable freaks, from PeeWee Herman to Edward Scissorhands to Batman to Ed Wood. Occasionally, Burton’s affection for the grotesque will go into high gear and trump his tendency toward the twee, producing truly bizarro moments (particularly in Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!), but for the most part, he sticks to church doctrine. For all the affection Burton gives to whimsical oddities who are socially misunderstood, they often end up as tragic exiles (Scissorhands, Batman), mere devices who redress the balance between the normal and the abnormal. Even in the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack decides that Halloween and Christmas really do have very separate functions and should not mix. It is crucial that the loveable freak may unnerve the viewer, but never ultimately threaten too much. In the end, he knows his place.

2. How Big Is Your Fish And How Fast Does It Grow?

Big Fish feels like Burton’s attempt to relocate his sensibility in a “grown up” film. This Hollywood rite of passage frequently afflicts boy-genius filmmakers who have a tendency toward the fantastic and some degree of financial success. The rite includes over-zealous praise and Oscar nominations. These pay false tribute to the alleged growth spurt that supposedly signals the “mature” or “accomplished” artist who attempts “serious” or more “realistic” themes. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is one of the most manipulative Holocaust films of all time, but if finally nabbed him a Best Picture Oscar in exactly this fashion. The Oscar is a very big and very important fish.

Burton’s films ultimately bow to convention and sentimentality, and this points to a limitation on his part about dealing with the darker implications of difference. However, I have gladly seen them all. I loathe the pathos of Edward Scissorhands, but still remember its distinctive sets and costumes and its sense of humor about the grotesque, for example. Burton’s unique visual signature aligns him most closely with eccentricity and freakishness, and it is the defining element of every film he has made.

Who is pressuring Burton to grow up? He was fine drawing obsessively in his room with a flashlight under the sheets.

3. Sure, It’s A Big Tale, But Can You Swallow It?

In Big Fish, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup, in a thankless role) is a journalist who favors facts. He resents his father’s penchant for spinning tall tales to anyone who will listen. Will resents it so much that he refuses to speak to his father for years. He believes his father, who was on the road as a salesman during much of his childhood, is hiding something. Ed Bloom (a jovial, jowly Albert Finney) could be a liar, could be telling the truth, or could have something else up his sleeve. No one knows for sure. When he discovers that Ed is dying of cancer, Will returns home to confront his father about what is truth and what is fiction.

During this process, we witness a chain of Ed’s tall tales which form a loose autobiography of his adolescence into marriage to Sandra (Alison Lohman as young Sandra, Jessica Lange as Sandra in middle age). These include his own amazing physical transformation as a teen. He is confined to bed for three years because he is growing too quickly. His conclusion? That due to this astonishing growth spurt, he is meant to accomplish extraordinary things, which he does, fearlessly traveling through a world filled with—you guessed it—loveable freaks, in a series of sentimental, yet wacky, adventures.

Could this be the director’s own fable of becoming a bigger fish in Hollywood’s scummy pond?

4. Friendly Fish

The affable Ewan McGregor plays the younger Ed in the tall tales. McGregor is able to participate wholeheartedly in the most fantastic of film environments and emerge without a scratch. I’m not sure many actors could convincingly weather such cinematic follies as Greenaway’s Pillow Book or Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge. McGregor often lends credibility to the fantastic through his affability—dare I say, his good nature? McGregor’s a fine actor, but I’m not sure his role as natural sweetener is always the best thing. His presence makes oddity and fantasy easier to digest, hence less challenging. Maybe we should have to struggle with our own assumptions about difference in more interesting ways.

5. Big Fish, Shrinking Pond

On his travels, Ed befriends a giant and visits the most perfect small town in the world. He works for a slave-driving circus ring master (Danny DeVito) for years to gain clues to the identity of Sandra, whom he falls in love with at first sight, then immediately loses sight of. Later in the film, he escapes during the Korean War with a pair of Siamese twins. Please, don’t ask me to explain. Frankly, it turns out to be less interesting than you might think.

Burton loads on the loveable freaks, all of whom are mere signposts on what turns out to be our hero’s very self-aggrandizing and pedestrian journey. I felt suffocated by the film’s relentless charm offensive and by its manipulative whimsy, but perhaps you will find it to be a heart-warming tale about the human condition. In the sneak preview I attended, snuffles were heard all around at certain deviously “touching” moments.

Many of the tall tales are shot with loving care by Phillippe Rousselot and the art direction is carefully done, but in some ways, this is one of Burton’s most visually repressed films. As we watch the pageant of charming grotesques pass by, I couldn’t help thinking how neat and clean it all seemed, how each loveable freak had his place and purpose in Ed’s narrative order of things and how the cinematography and sets seemed a bit too light and airy. Even the moodiest locales seem oddly well planned and executed, pre-packaged. They lack Burton’s imaginative energy and moodiness, as if he had put off “childish” visual stylings in favor of a more restrained, hence “mature” version of his aesthetic.

The most successful aspect of the film is its sense of humor, which rests almost entirely on how literal some of the tall tales can be. During Will’s birth, for example, he pops out of his mother with such force that he shoots out of the room and down a long hospital corridor on his back as if he’s in a luge competition. When a boy looks into the glass eye of the local witch to see his future death reflected there he sees himself as an old man falling off a ladder as he tries to screw in a light bulb. One of Ed’s duties during his job with the circus is to wash the gargantuan fat man in a massive, soapy tub. Such episodes put the whole enterprise in question and that’s refreshing.

6. Oh, Not That Old Fish Story Again!

These stories all lead inevitably toward the resolution of Will’s relationship with his father, when Will comes to embrace his father’s “fantasy” world. The worship of the loveable freak through tall tales passes clammily from Ed to Will, and then to Will’s own son, seen at the end of the film enthralling his friends with a tall tale as his father looks on adoringly. The loveable freaks have served their masters well—the patriarchal line is intact—one big, stinky fish.

It is telling that in this film, Lange and Lohman, both fine actresses, have almost nothing to do but stand around looking beautiful. Helena Bonham Carter gets the most interesting dual female role. She has fun as the witch with the glass eye, exiled to the outskirts of town. She also plays a younger woman who has a special place in Ed’s stories. When she presses him for romance, she gets no satisfaction because he loves his wife. Silent and beautiful or frustrated and alone: The range for women is exceedingly narrow in Burton’s fantasy world, where the men expand into big fishes and the women merely contract.

Don’t fall hook, line, and sinker for the misplaced praise this movie will receive. Hollywood’s business is to domesticate the unusual. Tim Burton needs to leave the temple of the Loveable Freak and immerse his films in the real cinematic light fantastic.

—Ellen Whittier

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