Big Fish
review by Elias Savada, 26 December 2003

Tim Burton's latest flight into fantasy lands a near-solid hook, line, and sinker as a whimsical family fable which should enchant those audiences dedicated enough to drag their kids after they've spent a small fortune on tickets, popcorn, soft drinks, and over three hours of their holiday time at that other fantasy. You know, the brilliantly entertaining trilogy-ending spectacle alighting this Christmas at megaplexes from here to the moon (where the box office grosses are out of this world). But that kingly return of a movie is but one in a seasonal sea that has plenty of room for Big Fish. If the battle-weary kids (or you) want something lighter than Frodo, Sam, Gollum, a digital cast of tens of thousands, and that dreaded ring, take a side trip around Mount Doom and think about sinking a hook into this sweet, personal offering.

Like Finding Nemo, that other big aquatic animal movie this year, Burton's film starts out underwater, with a huge, larger-than-life catfish in a pond in Ashton, Alabama. The critter is thematically introduced as the mystical centerpiece to the Southern fried tall tales that have been told and retold for decades by traveling salesman and irrepressible optimist Edward Bloom (Albert Finney). Those delightful stories, heard too often by his son Will (Billy Crudup) for the child now turned man to stand or believe them, thus estranging the skeptical offspring from his now terminally ill father. Also, dad's absence on the homefront as he was roaming his presumed make believe world took its toll on a firmly planted son who could only dream of a normal family life. Persuaded by his mother Sandra (Jessica Lange), the prodigal son reluctantly returns home with his pregnant French wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) to attempt reconciliation. Instead he finds the same old curious yarns that have haunted him being relived by Edward the younger (Ewan McGregor). "He's never told me a single true thing," Bill complains about his father.

There's an endearing charm to the way Finney and his drawl spread out his life's over-sized story, and how Burton boldly and brightly fleshes out Daniel Wallace's book Big Fish, a Novel of Mythic Proportions, as adapted by John August (Go, co-writer on both Charlie's Angels films). Like the eternal smile on McGregor's face as he bounds about the Alabama countryside and beyond, there is certain to be a least a smidgeon of a grin on  most viewers' faces as the film ambles through its two-hour length. For Burton, who stumbled badly with the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, he's back in good whimsical form. His new outing is closest in fanciful tone to his marvelously visionary Edward Scissorhands (which share more than a handful of the same technical crew with Big Fish, including composer Danny Elfman), while the storytelling style is more akin to that used in Forrest Gump. Ultimately I'd grade it somewhere just below Scissorhands and Beetlejuice.

The film's allure is in Burton's signpost production design and the eccentric characters that populate the imaginative story. The sets flourish with amusing eye appeal, particularly 18-year-old Edward's "early arrival" in the obscure town of Spectre, just off the map and down the road from Stepford. Here he meets the barefooted inhabitants who have tossed their shoes out of harm's way, dance on perfectly manicured lawns, and dine on apple pie. They share a deadly secret that they might not know themselves. Among the many strange people Edward meets along the mythical highway are a one-eyed witch (Helena Bonham Carter); a hungry, towering giant (Matthew McGrory); Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi), an amateur poet-crook turned stockbroker; a diminutive ringmaster (Danny DeVito); and conjoined twins (Ada and Arlene Tai). There's more than a few illustrious set pieces, including the time-stopping moment when Edward meets Sandra Tippleton, his future wife (Alison Lohman); a Korean War variation (from the enemy's side) of a USO tour featuring a bad Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy act; and a comic sequence showcasing Bill's birth.

Eventually the film transforms a father's far-fetched memories of foolishness into a haunting, somberly comic search for a deeper truth. A truth that reunites a family, allowing an immature child to see the forest through the trees. Big Fish offers a harmless (other than some brief nudity and mild profanity) excursion into a world populated not by big-budget battle scenes, but by strange and insightful creations, be they large, conjoined, or other sideshow attractions. If you have a chance, trade in a few hobbits for a film with magical powers that will hook you along for a wondrous ride.

Directed by:
Tim Burton

Starring:
Ewan McGregor
Albert Finney
Billy Crudup
Jessica Lange
Alison Lohman
Helena Bonham Carter
Steve Buscemi
Danny DeVito
Matthew McGrory
Marion Cotillard

Written by:
John August

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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