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
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
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 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
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.