The Scoop: 2003 PG-13, directed by Tim Burton and starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Marion Cotillard, Matthew McGrory, Steve Buscemi, Danny Devito, Alison Lohman, and Helena Bonham Carter.
Tagline: An adventure as big as life itself.
Summary Capsule: A dying tall-tale teller claims to have led a life of outrageous adventure. His son, who wants to understand his dad, tries to separate fact from fiction.
Deneb’s Review: Tim Burton, as I’ve mentioned before, is a weird guy. Moreover, he specializes in a certain type of weird. You generally know what you’re getting into with a Burton flick – you will get strange, dark stuff, a heartbeat away from genuinely twisted but eyebrow-raising nonetheless; a misunderstood loner at the heart of it all, and a gooey candy center beneath the be-spiraled outer shell. Chances are pretty good the ending will be bittersweet.
Now, this approach has garnered Burton a devoted legion of fans, sometimes pretty obsessive ones. Outside of this group, his name is likely to inspire anything from “oh, yeah – he’s all right, I guess” to “I’ve heard he makes those weird movies” to “didn’t he direct Nightmare Before Christmas?” to “he’s the Batman guy, right?” to “who?” Inside it, he is an icon and a legend, whose devotees worship at the altar of his particular brand of oddballness, and immerse themselves in it wherever possible.
Imagine, therefore, the furor and confusion when Big Fish came on the scene. Here you had what was basically Burton’s most crowd-pleasing effort in quite some time, attached to a rather conventional (in comparison, anyway) story that wouldn’t be too out of place in your average three-handkerchief Oscar bait. So while the general public went “ooh, pretty!,” lapped it up, and quickly forgot about it, as they tend to do, the Burtonian legions were in an uproar (or so is my understanding of the situation, anyway). “This isn’t real Burton!” they ranted. “Where’s the darkness? Where are the monsters and loners and creepy things? It’s colorful, it’s heartwarming, it’s candy-colored! He’s sold out!”
“Hey, c’mon, it’s not that bad,” a few timid souls ventured. “It’s actually kinda good.”
“Feh!” others replied.
Now, perhaps I’m exaggerating all this. After all, while I certainly consider myself a Burton fan, I’m far from privy to the squabblings of the big-time devotees (I understand entry into their ranks requires a Jack Skellington tattoo somewhere on your person). It’s irrefutable, however, that Big Fish has become a sort of in-between film. There are die-hard Burtonians who hate it for its lack of goth, similarly die-hards who like it simply because it’s Burton, dammit, and more casual dabblers in the spiral-haunted seas who like it for its relative accessibility. Outside of his fanbase, it’s not as well-known as some, because it’s not ‘definitive’ Burton, which invariably is the stuff that makes the news.
In other words, it’s a cult film amongst the cultists of an already-cult director! It’s a sub-cult of cult! What could be better for MRFH?
As the story begins, we meet one Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), a larger-than-life character with larger-than-life characteristics. Bloom is a natural raconteur, an old-style storyteller of the southern school, and if you believe him, he’s lived quite an extraordinary life. Indeed, all his stories seem to be personal anecdotes of one kind or another, ones in which he has outrageous adventures and lives to tell the tale. He’s the kind of guy who’s a lot of fun to be around, if you’ve got a little time to spare.
The trouble is, he has an adult son, Will (Billy Crudup), who may be the one person who does not appreciate his stories. Oh, he liked ‘em well enough as a little kid, but as he grew up, he began to resent his father never telling him anything like the straight truth. Put plainly, he figures he’s basically been lied to all his life, and he does not appreciate this.
Things finally comes to a head at his wedding reception, which the elder Bloom takes as an opportunity to recount an often-told tale of his involving a giant catfish. Sure, it’s sort of relevant to the occasion (it involves using a wedding ring as bait), but as far as Will’s concerned, it’s yet another incident of his dad making himself the center of attention, on a day which is supposed to be his. The two get into a blazing argument, and part on bitter terms.
Cut to three years later. Will is living in Paris with his pregnant wife (Marion Cotillard). He hasn’t spoken to his father since the reception, and it looks as if this state of affairs might continue on indefinitely.
However, a phone call from his mother (Jessica Lange) changes all that. Edward Bloom is dying of cancer, and is not expected to live much longer. If Will is ever going to reconnect with him, he’s going to have to do it now.
Yeah – doesn’t sound too typically Burton-y so far, does it? Here’s where things kick in, though. As is only natural for a dying man, Edward Bloom is doing a lot of reminiscing in his final days – in other words, he tells stories. Stories filled with giants, werewolves, witches, of dark forests and mysterious places, of his time with the circus and of hitting it big as a traveling salesman.
They’re great stories, but Will has heard them all before, and they don’t help him understand his father anymore now than they did back then. Yet as he puts his father’s affairs in order, he starts running across bits and pieces from the life of Edward Bloom that seem to correspond with the old man’s tales. Could it be that there might be a hint of the truth in them after all?
All right, let me get this out of the way (another phrase I use too much, but oh well) – I’ve never been particularly fond of sickbed dramas. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with them, mind you – the trauma of a loved one dying is something that a lot of people can relate to, and it’s certainly served up some powerful films – it’s just that it’s a topic that makes me a little uncomfortable. I’m an escapist by preference, and slow, uncomfortable death is, well… it doesn’t really qualify, yes?
Good thing, then, that Big Fish turns this on its head by being a film all about life, rather than death. Sure, Edward Bloom’s impending demise is one of the movie’s two major plot set-ups (and ultimately provides an extremely moving finale), but the other, more important one is his love of storytelling, and how, in the final analysis, it’s a celebration of life itself, and how wild and amazing and unexpected it can be.
A good chunk of the movie is taken up by the stories themselves, and here’s where Burton really lets loose. Despite his love of the dark and gloomy, the man can do wonders with color, and he gives it both barrels here. The younger Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor) cavorts through a brilliantly evocative version of the Deep South, the kind that Mark Twain wrote about, the kind where (as Bloom himself puts it) “most towns of a certain size have a witch”. His brief stint with the circus is a candy-colored wonderland, complete with Danny Devito as the ringmaster wearing one of the most awesome top hats ever created. I’m not sure how to even describe his Korean War anecdote – apparently Koreans make lousy ventriloquists; let’s leave it at that. It all feels like the contents of a really great yarn, expertly told – which, of course, is precisely what it’s supposed to feel like.
This is not to say that there aren’t any weak spots. While it makes sense for McGregor’s Bloom to come off as a tad obnoxious at times (we are, after all, talking about a man who will essentially hijack his own son’s wedding later in life), there are several scenes where we’re obviously supposed to cheer him on, and it doesn’t really work. His “small-town boy becomes the hero of town” sequence, for instance – you could pretty much replace the audio with the ‘Gaston’ song from Beauty and the Beast, and it wouldn’t make much difference. Yes, we know he’s supposed to be an amazing guy – stop giving us a highlights sequence and having everyone go “yay, Edward!” and have him show us. Given that he’s the one whose version of things we’re seeing, it comes off more as him being a bit of a blowhard than as “wow, what an awesome guy”. Also, some of the scenes where he’s courting his future wife are… well, let’s just say they take “love at first sight” just a little bit far. Going by tall-tale storybook logic, it works fine, but outside of that, he seems just a teeny bit stalkerish.
Thankfully, those account for a relatively minor part of the story. The scenes where he’s confronting legendary creatures and doing incredible deeds work much better, and they’re the backbone of the movie. They’re the bits that make Will question his father’s stories in the first place – sure, he might have really been a small-town hero and courted his wife that way, but giants and witches and werewolves? Come on, dad, ‘fess up – you’re telling tales.
The brilliant thing, though, is that we never do find out just to what extent Edward Bloom is embellishing the truth, and to what extent things actually did happen just as he told them. By the end, it’s implied that just about everything he said had some kernel of truth in it, but we never get the details.
I’m glad they took this route. I always feel a little sad when a story builds up an elaborate web of fantasy, only to deflate it at the end (if you can deflate a web… oh, you know what I mean). This leaves things more open to interpretation – you can either believe that Edward Bloom embellished the mundane truth with outrageous fantasy, or you can go the “all perfectly true, just exaggerated” route. Personally, I like the latter version, but they work both ways.
As usual, no matter how great the story is, you need good actors to portray it. Albert Finney does a good job as a likable old southern-fried codger, and Ewan McGregor is obviously enjoying himself as the over-the-top younger him. Billy Crudup is a little subdued as Will, but then, that fits the character – it wouldn’t really work if he were as big a ham as his father. Lange and Devito do a good job in supporting roles, and Alison Lohman is… well, “radiant” springs to mind as Lange’s younger self. One portrayal that stood out to me was Marion Cotillard as Josephine, Will’s French wife. She doesn’t really have a big role, but she’s just so sweet and charming and supportive that you can’t help but warm to her. Good catch, Will.
Big Fish is not my favorite Burton film – I prefer his wilder, more personal fantasies – but good it certainly is. It’s funny, exciting, engagingly bizarre at times, and in the final analysis, extremely moving. If you’re looking for a feel-good, somewhat melancholy movie that celebrates the art of fiction in all its glory, see Big Fish. Unless you’re in an intensely cynical mood, I doubt you’ll dislike it.
(And just for the record, I did once own a Jack Skellington T-shirt. Make of that what you will.)
PoolMan’s Review: I enjoy a pretty good relationship with my dad, all things said and done. He and I can always talk, and he’s a pretty naturally funny guy, so he’s usually good for a laugh. One story about him I love to share is that I remember once, at about age six, I wandered out of bed on Christmas Eve, just after he’d finished setting up the living room. He immediately regaled me with an on-the-spot story about how I’d JUST missed Santa, and how they had shared a drink and had a chat about me and my brothers. He went into details about what they’d discussed, and was so utterly convincing in his story that I believed in Santa anew, and continued to do so for probably a lot longer than my friends. After all, MY dad had met him!
I have to tell you, saying that this movie is “emotional” is like saying Kyle is “single”. Your heart gets tugged in every direction as we get to see some of the many fables that make up the history of Ed’s life. Nearing the end of his life in the present time, Ed’s young self is played by a shiny-eyed Ewan McGregor, in a role that’s sure to install him permanently into many new hearts. Ed routinely places himself in the role of the clever young lad that solves the puzzles or does the impossible, such that he’s the star of his own life’s story, just as he should be. Young Ed meets giants, finds mystically hidden towns where no one wears shoes, confronts a witch, robs a bank, and catches the biggest fish you’ve never heard of. It’s all beautifully sewn together in a weave of reality and fantasy that makes it really hard to distinguish what’s real and what isn’t, particularly as a disgusted Will eventually starts to find bits of evidence that there’s truth in his father’s tales after all.Big Fish is all about one father, Ed (Albert Finney), who spends his entire life telling stories like that, not to be mean or manipulative, but simply to present his own vision of his life to others, particularly his son, Will. Ed’s life is a collage of bigger than life stories, each with its own magical properties and impossibilities. Of course, as a boy, Will (Billy Crudup) ate these stories up, but as a grown man he’s grown sick of it all. He sees his father’s way of dealing with life as a neverending, self-indulgent lie. But with death by cancer looming for Ed, Will comes home from France with his wife, Josephine, to make one final try at getting his father to tell him his life’s story as it really was.
The stories that are told are each unto themselves and at the same time part of the larger structure of the movie, such that it’s almost pointless trying to separate them. There are some familiar faces along for the ride, though, as we see Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Robert Guillaume, and a very naked Danny DeVito (but don’t let that discourage you!). Yet despite such a strong cast, it’s all about father and son and their battle of wills. Crudup and Finney are great opposite one another, and McGregor is just great fun to watch in the past. This is particularly true because despite seeming so earnest and real, it’s all so unlikely and filled with odd details, just like someone telling a story (for example, Ed’s translation book in the war is entitled “English to Asian”, instead of “English to Japanese”).
Saying much at all about the ending would just be criminal, because it’s the key to the movie. If the last ten minutes of this movie don’t move you, I doubt any film ever will. It’s extremely powerful, and it’s as simple as that.
Big Fish may very well go on to be the signature piece of Tim Burton’s career, and deservedly so. Even though it lacks Burton’s usual macabre styling, it’s unmistakeably of the same creative engine as Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, while at the same time of a far deeper meaning than probably anything else he’s ever done. Just like my dad and his Santa story, it’s all about two completely different ways of describing the same event, and how they’re intricately bound to each other as halves of the truth. It is simple, it is touching, and it is just plain great.
- Matthew McGrory, who played Karl the Giant, was a genuine giant at seven-foot-six. However, he was a tad short for the character, who stood somewhere in the neighborhood of sixteen feet, so they made up the difference through forced perspective and, in some scenes, put him up on a high platform.
- Big Fish was originally going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who had planned to cast Jack Nicholson in the role of Edward Bloom.
- As a traveling salesman, Edward sells a hand-shaped device that, among other things, has small tools installed in the fingertips. To avoid a comparison with Edward Scissorhands, scissors were intentionally not included.
- The ‘jumping spiders’ sequence is a clear homage to a similar sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- During the Korean sequence, people are actually speaking in four different languages. While most of the soldiers speak standard Korean, the ones who go up on stage are speaking Mandarin Chinese, while the ventriloquist and his dummy speak Tagalog, the Philippine language. Ping and Jing speak with Edward in Cantonese.
- Ewan McGregor should look at doing a 70’s crime drama!
- Ed’s constant desire to drink water?
- Young Ed brusing the popcorn out of the air at the frozen-in-time circus.
- Boy, them floods is HUGE in Alabama!
- The breakfast machine that Young Ed Bloom shows off at the science fair is the same machine used in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the first film directed by Tim Burton.
- Young Edward Bloom is seen wearing a tie featuring the spiral hill of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
- In the middle of the lettered board in the bank that Norther Winslow robs reads “ROMANS 12:1-2.” This refers to the passages in the Bible that says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Edward Bloom: (opening words) There are some fish that cannot be caught. It’s not that they’re faster or stronger than other fish – they’re just touched by something extra.
Wilbur Freely: She’ll make soap out o’ you. That’s what she does. She makes soap out o’ people.
Edward Bloom: Havin’ a kid changes everythin’. There’s the diapers an’ the burpin’ an’ the midnight feedin’…
Will Bloom: Did you do any of that?
Edward Bloom: No. But I hear it’s terrible.
Amos Calloway: Tell me Karl, have you ever heard the term ‘involuntary servitude’?
Karl the Giant: …No.
Amos Calloway: ‘Unconscionable contract’?
Karl the Giant: Uhh, nope.
Amos Calloway: Great!
Edward Bloom: See, most men, they’ll tell you stories straight through. It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interestin’, either.
Will Bloom: For one night, one night in your entire life, the universe did not revolve around Edward Bloom! How can you not understand that?
Edward Bloom: I’ve been nothin’ but myself since the day I was born, and if you can’t see that, it’s your failin’, not mine.
Mayor: Son, that creature could crush you without tryin’.
Edward Bloom: Oh, trust me, he’ll have to try.
Edward Bloom: Oh, c’mon, I can’t go back! I’m a human sacrifice!
Will Bloom: My father talked about a lot of things he never did, and I’m sure he did a lot of things he never talked about. I’m just trying to reconcile the two.
Edward Bloom: Now, there comes a point when a reasonable man will swallow his pride, and admit that he’s made a terrible mistake. The truth is, I was never a reasonable man.
Jenny: How’re ya gonna make it without your shoes?
Edward Bloom: Well, I suspect it will hurt. A lot.
Repeated line: Fate has a way of circling back on a man, and taking him by surprise.
Edward Bloom: It was that night I discovered that most things you consider evil or wicked are simply lonely, and lacking in social niceties.
Josephine: Can I take your picture?
Edward Bloom: Oh, you don’t need a picture. Just look up the word ‘handsome’ in the dictionary.
Edward Bloom: I may not have much, but I have more determination than any man you’re likely to meet.
Karl the Giant: Friend, what happened to your shoes?
Edward Bloom: They kinda got ahead of me.
Edward Bloom: I saw my death in that eye, an’ this isn’t how it happens.
Will Bloom: So, uh, how does it happen?
Edward Bloom: Surprise endin’. Wouldn’t want to ruin it for ya.
Josephine: So this is a tall tale.
Edward Bloom: Well, it’s not a short one.
Edward Bloom: They say when you meet the love of your life, time stops – and that’s true. What they don’t tell ya is that once time starts again, it moves extra fast to catch up.
Amos Calloway: What’s the matter, kid? I haven’t seen a customer so depressed since the elephant sat on that farmer’s wife. (pause) ‘Depressed?’
(Karl the Giant chuckles)
See, the big guy likes it.
Edward Bloom: Sandra Templeton, I love you and I will marry you!
Will Bloom: You know about icebergs, Dad?
Edward Bloom: Do I? I saw an iceberg once. They were haulin’ it down to Texas for drinkin’ water. They didn’t count on there bein’ an elephant frozen inside – the wooly kind, a mammoth…
Will Bloom: Dad!
Edward Bloom: What?
Will Bloom: I’m, uh, trying to make a metaphor here.
Edward Bloom: Well, you shouldn’t have started with a question, because people want to answer questions. You should have started with ‘the thing about icebergs is’.
Amos Calloway: You were a big fish in a small pond, but this here is the ocean, and you’re drownin’.
Edward Bloom: There’s a time when a man needs to fight, and a time when he needs to accept that his destiny is lost, the ship has sailed, and that only a fool will continue. Truth is, I’ve always been a fool.
Will Bloom: A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him. And in that way, he becomes immortal.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Edward Scissorhands
- The Return of Captain Invincible
- Just about any decent adaptation of Mark Twain