Tim Burton’s Big Fish certainly has its fans – it received many positive reviews on release, made a lot of money, earned several award nominations and currently holds an impressive score of 8.0 on IMDB (for what it’s worth) – but I’m afraid I’m not one of them; I’ve liked Burton’s work since he first hit the big time with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, but his films during the last twenty years have been patchy, and for me this sentimental paean to the art of storytelling is one of his lesser efforts (though by no means one of the worst). Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney head up an all-star cast playing the same man – one Edward Bloom – at different ages, though their performances are uneven: Finney’s older version bears little resemblance to the younger version played by McGregor (I’m talking about mannerisms…I can forgive the lack of physical similarity), who unfortunately makes a complete hash of the character’s southern American accent. In the present the older Bloom is dying, with his family drawing close as his illness worsens: Billy Crudup plays his son Will, Marion Cotillard is Will’s wife Joséphine and Jessica Lange plays Edward’s wife Sandra. Bloom’s defining characteristic is that he’s fond of telling a tall tale, always pitting himself as the central character, which has understandably proven exasperating for Will over the years even though everyone else seems to tolerate (and actually enjoy) them. The film is really about their re-connection, with Edward running through his repertoire of fantastical stories one final time before he dies, which Burton turns into a series of fairy tale gothic vignettes featuring a chipper McGregor. There are some typical Burton images and themes as these flashbacks lurch awkwardly between settings, from creepily-idyllic small town community to haunted, scary woodland path to travelling circus to Korean War battlefield and many more: this is a world populated by identical twins, giants, poets, witches and werewolves, with McGregor’s Bloom stumbling through it all wide-eyed and innocent, as if we’re watching Forrest Gump 2: The Night Terrors. Danny DeVito pops up as a ringmaster, Helena Bonham-Carter plays three characters (including a witch) and Steve Buscemi is a poet-turned-bank robber; all suitably madcap. However Burton’s at his best when he’s asking the audience to sympathise with an outsider, and everything goes so well for the young Edward Bloom that it’s difficult to really care about his plight in any of the scenarios that unfold here, however dangerous or weird they may be: he’s immensely popular, he becomes aware early on that he’ll live to an old age, he spreads joy and happiness wherever he goes, he gets the girl of his dreams, and so on and so forth. (A sub-plot begins to develop involving another man who always seems to find himself in Bloom’s shadow, and who even loses his girl (the younger Sandra played by Alison Lohman) to the hero, but sadly the screenplay cuts it short before it goes anywhere interesting.)
Burton lost both his mother and father before making this film, which is adapted from Daniel Wallace’s book Big Fish: A Novel Of Mythic Proportions, and presumably he felt a personal connection with the material, which I think can be felt in the finished product. His films are usually sentimental, and with Danny Elfman’s swelling strings in your ears it’s hard to hold back the tears as father and son make up for lost time in the present, but their scenes together do seem a little too mawkish at times. In their defence Burton, Wallace and screenwriter John August clearly believe in the sheer power of storytelling, and so Will’s reconciliation with Bloom Sr and subsequent realisation that there’s real worth to the tales he was told as a kid feels heartfelt, despite the message being incredibly familiar. However ultimately I can’t help but react negatively to all the Gump-esque homespun philosophy present during the adventures of young Bloom, and agree wholeheartedly with the late Roger Ebert, who (I’m paraphrasing) suggested that Burton was only interested in his character as an old man because he serves as an entry point to a bunch of flamboyant visual fantasies. The film’s probably enjoyable enough if that’s all you’re looking for, and some people believe that’s all you’ll ever get from this director, but I think his best films offer more.
Directed by: Tim Burton.
Written by: John August. Based on Big Fish: A Novel Of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Marion Cotillard, Helena Bonham-Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Matthew McGrory.
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot.
Editing: Chris Lebenzon.
Music: Danny Elfman.
Running Time: 120 minutes.