Director : Tim Burton
Screenplay : John August (based on the novel Big Fish A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Ewan McGregor (Young Ed Bloom), Albert Finney (Senior Ed Bloom), Billy Crudup (Will Bloom), Jessica Lange (Senior Sandra Bloom), Alison Lohman (Young Sandra Bloom), Helena Bonham Carter (Jenny / The Witch), Robert Guillaume (Dr. Bennett), Marion Cotillard (Josephine), Matthew McGrory (Karl), David Denman (Bon Price), Steve Buscemi (Norther Winslow), Danny DeVito (Amos Calloway)
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”
And that is precisely what Ed Bloom, the hero of Tim Burton’s Big Fish, is: a cultured and fascinating liar. As Oscar Wilde did, Bloom recognizes the artistry and pleasure of lying—that, in and of itself, it is not a bad thing, but rather something quite necessary for the pleasure of those who would listen. Where facts and figures and statistics often bore, a fabled tall tale or an exaggerated story bring wit and magic into the world. They’re fun to listen to and they often tell us more about the storyteller than all the “facts” in the world.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what Bloom’s son, Will (Billy Crudup), doesn’t get. He wants to know his father, but all he’s ever heard from him are exaggerated tall tales that he believed earnestly as a child, but as an adult sees only as silly made-up stories behind which his “real” father hides. His anger at his father’s insistence on mythic storytelling is so great, in fact, that they have a falling out and don’t speak for three years. They are reunited only when Bloom is lying on his deathbed, and Will pleads with him to tell him the “real” stories of his life. What he doesn’t understand—until the end, that is—is that his father’s stories, fanciful or not, are who he is. Mundane life events do not a life make, especially one like Ed Bloom’s.
Big Fish is a gorgeous and fanciful return to form for Tim Burton, after his last outing, the by-the-numbers, instantly forgettable would-be blockbuster remake of Planet of the Apes (2001). If that movie buried Burton’s unique voice in its desperate bid for mainstream success, Big Fish delights in Burton’s quirky sense of humor, love of outsiders, and visual inventiveness. Dancing back and forth between “fantasy” and “reality” to the point that the line between them is utterly meaningless, Big Fish plays on our love of stories that push boundaries by ignoring provable facts and instead rollicking in exaggeration and whimsy. It’s a loving parable about our inner need for myth to make sense of our complicated lives.
The reuniting of Will and his father (Albert Finney) provides the film’s dramatic framework, but the core of the story is the imagining of Bloom’s tall tales. Played as a young man by Ewan McGregor, Bloom confidently navigates his way through a series of improbable adventures, bolstered by his knowledge of how he will eventually die, which he claims to have seen in the eye of a local witch (Helena Bonham Carter). As a young man in the tiny town of Ashton, Alabama, Bloom is a football and basketball star, successful businessman, and all around hero and center of the social universe; he’s the titular “big fish” who refuses to stay trapped in the small town in which he was born. At one point, he even befriends a giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory), who the townspeople mistakenly fear as a monster, but Bloom correctly understands as simply being misunderstood.
Bloom’s adventures take him to the secluded, though slightly creepy, utopia of Spectre, a tiny little town buried in the back swamps of Alabama in which no one has to wear shoes because the streets are paved with lush green grass. He meets the love of his life, Sandra (played as a young woman by Alison Lohman and later in life by Jessica Lange), while working in a circus, and he woos her at college by planting an entire field of daffodils outside her window. He pulls off amazing feats of derring-do as a paratrooper in the Army, faces down a werewolf, and eventually becomes the savior of Spectre when the outside world intrudes on its isolated perfection.
Of course, all of this is, in the conventional sense, not true. Bloom has constructed his own personal mythology, and he tells it with the enthusiasm and gusto of a true believer, which is probably what infuriates Will the most. Will is a journalist, so he has bought into the importance of proof and fact, and he clings to them so intensely that he risks never understanding his father at all. When Will complains bitterly that he knows every one of his father’s fanciful stories by heart because he’s heard them a thousand times, he doesn’t recognize that he’s essentially saying that he knows his father better than anyone, and his eventual realization of that fact gives the film a deeply satisfying emotional resonance that far outstrips the banal question of how much of Bloom’s stories were myth and how much were fact.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick