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.
Danny Elfman.
Running Time:
120 minutes.

21 Responses to “0406 | Big Fish”

  1. Mark Walker

    Not a fan then? It’s been a while but I remember quite liking it. It was nice departure from Burton’s more gothic tales and I enjoyed the cast of eccentric characters. That said, I’m not sure how I’d feel on a revisit.

    • Stu

      Well…not a big fan, but I didn’t hate it either! I thought McGregor was pretty bad in this, which is one of my biggest problems with it, but also I hate Gump and there’s too much Gump in here for my liking!

      • Mark Walker

        I actually really Gump but wasn’t a fan of Benjamin Button which was essentially the same story.

        With you on McGregor though. Sometimes he can be really good playing an American (like I Love You Philip Morris) and others times he really doesn’t fit a role.

        • Stu

          I’ve just watched Son Of A Gun today. He plays a bank robber in Australia but sticks with his own accent. He’s not amazing but it’s the best I’ve seen him for quite some time and it gives me quite a bit of hope for Trainspotting 2.

        • Mark Walker

          Aah! Son of Gun, I forgot all about that. I’ll get around to that eventually. Sometimes he can be spot. The best I’ve seen from him lately was in The Impossible but thought he was seriously out of place in Osage County amongst a very strong cast. Can’t wait for Trainspotting 2 but is also recommend Perfect Sense, a great, low-key end of days drama with Eva Green and filmed in my home city Glasgow. Great film.

        • Stu

          That one passed me by. Cheers – I’ll check it out. Son Of A Gun is a bit cliched but there’s some good things about it and it’s worth a watch.

        • Mark Walker

          Yeah, when I seen Perfect Sense it really struck a chord with me. So much so, that I gave it top marks. I might have been overly generous at that point and may change my mind on a revisit but it really caught me unawares.
          Son of Gun was one that I quite fancied and then it just escaped my mind. I’ll track it down.

  2. Three Rows Back

    Only ever seen this once and it really moved me, but then that was not long after I’d lost my nana so that no doubt played a big part. As ever, great review.

    • Stu

      Thanks Mark, much appreciated. I do think the scenes about Bloom dying are quite moving…Burton’s such a good manipulator of emotions.

  3. Tom

    ‘Forest Gump 2: The Night Terrors.’ Hah! Brilliant.

    Wow man I have no recollection at all of how stacked this cast is! That’s a lot of big names. And quite frankly I remember very little about Big Fish. As a mostly huge hater of Tim Burton’s vision, I *think* I liked this one more than I usually like his films, but I’ll need to rewatch this confirm that.

    • Stu

      Yeah lots of famous faces here…I think some fare better than others as usual. Not a fan of Burton eh? He is definitely more popular than I would expect him to be.

      • Tom

        I am not put off enough to where I would never like to see Edward Scissorhands (I hear that’s his best collaboration with Johnny Depp. Perhaps also Sleepy Hollow. But all of his more recent stuff is just too colorful and fruity for my tastes.

        • Stu

          That’s one I really liked, but it’s another where it’s so long ago that I watched it I have no idea how I might feel today. I remember it sending up suburbia quite well.

  4. alexraphael

    Didn’t find it anywhere near as moving as everyone else seemed to. I’ve never found MacGregor to be the most likeable on screen, and the script had too many uneven moments. In terms of being moved my a film involving parents, Field of Dreams for me.

    • Stu

      Yeah, I don’t quite get what the draw is here, although there were elements of the film that I liked. I haven’t seen Field Of Dreams in so long…I have a bit of a Costner aversion!

  5. Todd Benefiel

    Only saw this one once, many eons ago, but I’m with you: I wasn’t all that impressed. Parts of it were good, but overall, I have absolutely no desire to ever watch it again. And you know of course that I’d pay good money to see ‘Forrest Gump 2: The Night Terrors’. Preferably the more bloody European version, minus the voiceover and tacked-on happy ending.

    And if I may be so bold as to make a Costner recommendation: ‘Open Range’, a very cool and understated Western with Robert Duvall, and featuring one of the most awesome ‘showdown’ sequences I’ve ever seen.

    • Stu

      Well I’m prepared to give it a go seeing as it’s you, Todd. There’s something about Costner’s voice that gets me. It just sends me to sleep straight away. That said, when I watched that pretty terrible Man Of Steel movie last year he was one of the best things about it.

      • Todd Benefiel

        Considering that you’re entrusting me with the film of choice for a valuable night’s movie watching, I will allow you this: you may enjoy ‘Open Range’ with the sound off whenever Costner speaks. But when he does, I insist you use Korean subtitles.

        • Stu

          Haha that might be a viable option! Or a dubbed version would be even better.

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