BIG FISH (2003)

BIG FISH (2003)


Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: John August (based on the novel ’ Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions’ by Daniel Wallace)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Billy Crudup, Alison Lohman, Hailey Anne Nelson, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard.

Big Fish is arguably Tim Burton’s best film in almost a decade. It combines the freewheeling fun of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with the emotional resonance of Edward Scissorhands. In fact Edward’s Big Adventure wouldn’t be a bad alternate title. If you haven’t seen it yet then I suggest you stop reading now before I go into spoiler territory, since a major part of the film’s appeal is the element of surprise.

Although some reviewers have claimed this film is a departure for Burton, it still has all his trademark touches. As always with his films, it drew me in right from the magical opening credits. Since this is a film about tall tales, the structure is quite different from Burton’s other work. You never know when or where the story is going to go next, which is part of the film’s charm.

We first meet the main character, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), as an old man enchanting everyone except his son, Will (Billy Crudup), with his outlandish stories. Then we go back in time and see Ed as a young man (Ewan McGregor) catching the uncatchable fish of the title. Then, as the storytelling begins in earnest, we see his memorable birth (literally popping out of his mother’s womb) and childhood. An early encounter with an old witch (Helena Bonham Carter) who can show people how they die in her glass eye is classic Burton – creepy and fun. The film cuts back and forth between Ed’s fanciful exaggerations and the naturalistic, real world scenes featuring the older, dying Bloom and his estranged son, but the contrast is never jarring.

It takes a little while for the movie to build up steam, but once the tall tales focus on Ed as a young man setting out to make a name for himself in the world, it becomes more and more entertaining. This is definitely Burton’s funniest film in a while – I had an almost constant smile on my face from the wit and visual invention of the tales. The segment where Ed becomes a small town hero is an amusing montage and features a suburban scene with lawnmowers all moving simultaneously that is highly reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands.

The characters the young Ed meets, from giants to bank robbing poets to circus folk to werewolves, are all fascinating creations. After a trip through a dark forest Ed finds himself in the town of Spectre. It seems almost like Eden – a place where everyone smiles and no one wears shoes. This segment is rich in symbolism, and introduces the amusing recurring character of Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi). Ed’s stay in paradise ends with a hilarious scene where he is caught up in a town dance and finds himself twirled around by the insanely smiling mayor (played by musician Loudon Wainwright III). Ed leaves, but promises a young girl named Jenny he will return one day.

The most charming part of the film comes after Ed and his towering companion Karl (played sympathetically by real life giant Matthew McGrory) turn up at a circus run by Amos (Danny DeVito), whose acts include a high wire diving cat. It’s there that Ed first meets Sandra (Alison Lohman), the girl destined to become the love of his life, and time literally stops. Ed spends years working for Amos in order to find her again, and then performs a dazzling series of romantic gestures to win her love. However, the Korean War soon separates the happy couple. This leads to a laugh out loud sequence where Ed parachutes into an enemy camp and has to deal with kung fu fighting soldiers before hatching an escape plan with conjoined twin lounge singers (Adai Tai and Arlene Tai).

After Ed arrives back home and makes his fortune, the tall tales begin to thin out as the film focuses more on the present day relationship between father and son. Will does some investigating and discovers that the town of Spectre was real. It turns out Ed returned there years after his first visit to find it had fallen on hard times. He used his money and contacts to help rebuild the place, and met Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter) again. This further blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and begins Will’s reconciliation with his father.

After the elder Bloom takes a turn for the worst, Will visits him in hospital and finally tells a tall tale of his own. In Ed’s dying moments, his son reveals to him what was shown in the witch’s eye – Ed dies in the river surrounded by all the people he met on his adventures. It’s a poetically beautiful final tale, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was in tears during this and the following funeral. The fact that I watched my own father almost die in a hospital bed no doubt added to my emotional state during these scenes. The real life versions of the people from Ed’s stories turn up to bid their final farewell, showing that the legend was closer to reality than the sceptical Will ever dreamed. At the end, Edward Bloom becomes the big fish he always wanted to be.

The actors are as perfectly cast as any in Burton’s previous films. McGregor is more charming than he’s ever been. He manages to emulate Albert Finney at times, while still making the character his own. His bloody smile to Sandra after being beaten up by her bullying fiancé, yet winning her heart, is surprisingly sweet. Finney is equally good as the older Bloom, full of boisterousness and Southern charm. Crudup has a difficult role as the son tired of his father’s flights of fancy, but he underplays it well. Jessica Lange is somewhat underused as the older Sandra, but still gives a touching performance, especially in the scene where she and Ed both lie in a bathtub fully clothed. Bonham Carter follows up her emotive chimp turn in Planet of the Apes with her impressive dual role. DeVito is as flamboyantly entertaining as in his other parts for Burton, though you may see a little more of him than you ever wished. Buscemi is great as always. His character goes through more changes than perhaps anyone else, from his funny attempts at poetry, to a bumbling bank robbery scene that reminded me of Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs, to his final Wall Street incarnation. All of the actors in the minor roles turn in good performances as well.

The technical qualities are as amazing as you’d expect from a Burton film. The lush cinematography, dazzling production design and colourful costumes all add to the fairytale feel of the film. The visual effects are used sparingly to compliment the story. Danny Elfman’s score is also subtly effective.

Big Fish is a truly magical film that has all the best elements of Burton’s classics, while also showcasing a new maturity as a filmmaker. It’s not perfect, and some people may lose patience with the relaxed tone of the film, but if you go with the flow it’s impossible not to be both entertained and moved by it. It may not surpass Burton’s other two films about a character called Edward, but it shows that Hollywood still hasn’t stamped out his creativity.

Arran McDermott 2004


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