Big Fish
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Throughout his career in feature films, which started with Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1985 and includes Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton has been known as a director who emphasizes art direction and special effects in order to create fantastic worlds. He hasn't been known as a director who values the real world and real characters. But that might change with Big Fish, which may very well be his masterpiece.

Here, Burton has a created film with a strong core of flesh and blood characters, and their story takes place in a world that we largely recognize. However, this is still a Tim Burton, so fantastic worlds are also present. These worlds intrude upon the real world through the stories of a man named Edward Bloom. He's an habitual teller of tall tales. His stories involve a livestock-eating giant, an idyllic small town buried deep within a swamp, a huge catfish, a white mermaid-like creature, a tremendous flood, and a traveling circus (Danny DeVito plays the ringmaster).

Edward Bloom's stories are wonderfully imaginative, but in the eyes of his son, the stories have made his father a stranger. His son, now 30-something years old and making a living as a writer, regards his father bitterly, considering him to be a liar pathologically incapable of revealing his true personality. However, now Edward Bloom (played by Albert Finney) is over 60 years old, and he has a terminal case of cancer; so his son (played by Billy Crudup of Almost Famous) reconsiders his father's tell tales, trying to make sense of his relationship to this father.

This human conflict forms the basis of Big Fish. Typically Burton's films include major doses of physical conflict -- such as Batman's battle against the Joker or Ichabod Crane's battle against the Headless Horseman -- but here the physical conflicts have been relegated to a minor role. Even when it looks like the movie presents us with the opportunity for a major skirmish, as when a young Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor) encounters a giant who has been feasting on the livestock of Bloom's hometown, the battle instead becomes one of wits where the giant is immediately shown to be less terrifying than we might have imagined. Instead, the giant is misunderstood. And when Bloom becomes a paratrooper during the Korean War, his mission behind enemy lines leads to only a few moments of hand-to-hand combat before he encounters a beautiful lounge singer -- who also happens to be Siamese twins -- and together Bloom and the twins sneak to America.

Big Fish is a gentle and whimsical movie, but it's also powerfully emotional. It bears some resemblance to Forest Gump, particularly in the way it moves between the somber present and the fantastic past. In both cases, our initial disbelief at the fantastic stories is undercut by suggestions that the stories may in fact have some basis in reality. We know that some of Edward Bloom's stories are pure fiction, such as his story about using his wedding ring to catch a huge catfish on the day his son was born, but his other stories may be based more in fact than we first realize. This creates a pervading sense of magic. While we're faced with Bloom's impending death, we also discover that immortality awaits Bloom through his fantastic visions, which will live on among the people he loves. Here is where Big Fish succeeds best, in its view of a benevolent world where great things await us if we open our minds.

In the past, I've never really questioned Tim Burton's skills at creating fantastic worlds on celluloid, but I've frequently wondered about his skills at telling complete stories. He's great at setting up stories and providing elaborate worlds in which his characters can maneuver. But his movies frequently stumble awkwardly as the scenarios play out (as in his remake of Planet of the Apes). Batman begins to drag long before it ends, Beetlejuice nearly drowns in its profusion of special effects, and Sleepy Hollow becomes repetitious long before Ichabod Crane finally bests the Headless Horseman. In contrast, Big Fish is Burton's best attempt at sustained storytelling. All the story's elements come together at the movie's ending for a surprisingly powerful and emotionally satisfying resolution.

Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish has a heartfelt story at its core, and Burton wisely keeps that story close at hand. The movie could easily have been overwhelmed by the elements of fantasy. But Burton knows we have to believe in Edward Bloom and care about him if this movie is going to succeed.

Big Fish isn't perfect. Edward Bloom's son (Crudup) never becomes a particularly compelling character. He mainly exists as a means for introducing us to his father and providing an excuse for revisiting his father's stories. And Jessica Lange is asked to do little except look beautiful as Edward Bloom's wife. But this is such a wonderfully magical movie that its deficiencies become relatively insignificant.

My own father died of cancer about five years ago, and Big Fish dredged up some of those memories. The movie gets at something universal about the way that fathers and sons communicate (or rather fail to communicate), and it provides some profound insights into the near-mythical standing that fathers can assume in the minds of their sons.

[rating: 3.5 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Columbia Pictures (
Movie Web site: Big Fish



Photo credits: © 2003 Columbia Pictures All rights reserved.