What is fantasy? For that matter, what is reality? Are the two interchangeable, or are they merely a matter of individual perception? These are a few of the questions director Tim Burton raises in his film “Big Fish.”
The premise is simple: Ed Bloom, a larger-than-life man (Albert Finney) with a life-long penchant for telling larger-than-life stories, is on his deathbed, while his son (Billy Crudup) wants Dad to stop exaggerating and just relate the simple truths of his past before he dies. Ed’s stories are told in flashback, with Ewan McGregor playing him as a younger man. McGregor, who is ordinarily a dependable actor, spends most of his on-screen time with a look of “aw, shucks” wonder on his face. His wide eyes and toothsome grin suit the film during some of its more unbelievable moments, but feel saccharine during others.
Finney’s performance is a delight to watch, and remains pitch-perfect throughout. Are his stories fact or fiction? We spend the film’s running time flip-flopping back and forth. Finney doesn’t tip his hand either way and, although the tales he tells may be tall, they never feel less than genuine.
A seemingly odd choice of actors fills out the rest of the cast, including Danny DeVito as a circus owner, Helena Bonham Carter in dual roles as Blooms love interest and an old witch (I’m not judging her demeanor; she’s literally a witch, complete with scraggly hair and an ability to show a person his or her death). Also featured are real life twins Ada and Arlene Tai (who are conjoined in the film and working at the aforementioned circus) and Matthew McGrory who, as a deformed giant, has the ability to lift houses with just one hand. All of these people circle fleetingly around young Bloom throughout his tales, yet never feel like caricatures. Watching them, I felt like I was watching a child paint for the first time; there is a sense of wonder and innocence to these characters.
Set design is inspired as well; at times the background looks like a carefully structured amalgamation of “Dr. Seuss” and “Wizard of Oz” artifacts. The film is vibrant with color and, like all of Burton’s movies, incredibly creative. “Big Fish” can also, like the other film’s in Burton’s cannon, be taken on several levels. It is, at first glace, a simple fable, but there is depth here as well. Commentary about the greed of man, our self importance, and our tendency to overreact, over think, and over complicate our lives run throughout the film like threads binding this quilt of tales together.
“Big Fish” is a pop-up book for adults and, if you can suspend disbelief and let it take you where it may, a terrific journey into the child within us all.
Pros: Bright, creative set design; strong characters; strong performances. That Burton Magic.
Cons: Somewhat thin plotline; some performances are decidedly better than others.
Review Rating: 4 out of 5 shoes hanging on a clothesline.
“ Big Fish” (2003)
125 Minutes; USA
Rated PG-13 for a fight scene, some images of nudity and a suggestive reference.
Ewan McGregor (Younger Ed Bloom)
Albert Finney (Older Ed Bloom)
Billy Crudup (Will Bloom)
Jessica Lange (Sandra Bloom)
Helena Bonham Carter (Jenny (Young & Senior) & The Witch)
Alison Lohman (Sandra Templeton Bloom)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Viewing Format: Theatrical Release
(Originally published on SciFiWatch)