<< Front page Arts March 19, 2004

Big Fish to grace the Apollo

Burton’s flick treats tradition with imagination
By Matt Goldberg

The best films don’t get old on repeat viewings. When a film can draw a viewer back for another screening, that is a big accomplishment in itself, but when that second viewing yields a new idea or something fresh, then that film becomes new all over again. When every viewing manages to create that feeling of freshness, then the film becomes eternal. It might even get better on repeat viewings. Big Fish is a perfect example of this kind of eternal film.

The story is fairly straightforward: Billy Crudup (Almost Famous, Jesus’ Son,) plays Will Bloom, a man desperate to understand his father Edward (elderly Edward played by Albert Finney and the younger version played by Ewan McGregor) who has always related the events of his life in tall tales. Events in Edward’s stories seem too outrageous to be true, and Will desperately wants Edward to give him the straightforward stories of his life so that he can retell them to his soon-to-be-born son. But within this film we see the tales of Edward’s life as only Tim Burton could create.

There are numerous ways to see this father-son film. One viewing could focus on Edward’s coming of age story as he realizes a life of quiet desperation could never suit him. His journeys of meeting giants and coming to mythical towns make for wonderful metaphors of maturity. Big Fish’s message is clearly delivered, yet never condescending or trite. While themes and motifs have certain highlights throughout the film, they never get left behind or forgotten. Edward’s understanding of life always comes back into view as the audience continues along the path of his fantastical life.

The film could content itself with this father and son tale and still be an excellent film. However, it continues to incorporate new ideas such as Edward’s love story with Sandra, a woman he’s never met (younger played by Alison Lohman, older played by Jessica Lange). In the hands of a less-gifted filmmaker Edward’s drive to marry Sandra might appear creepy, but under Tim Burton’s skilled direction it’s nothing short of magical. The love story between Edward and Sandra is cute, surprising, touching and honest.

Big Fish feels like Tim Burton’s previous masterpiece Edward Scissorhands, providing a criticism on how people react to imagination and how imagination and notions of magic work in people’s lives. It focuses on the beauty and folly of storytelling. Will searches for one single truth, but in Edward’s mind, everything he’s saying is the truth. While the events may not have actually been as fantastic as Edward portrays them, it’s his passion that makes every carnival light shine, every ordinary event seem extraordinary.

While those major themes stick out, noticing Burton’s magnificent touches, like having a skull mirrored in a fishing hook or a demon’s head as a door knob, just show that Big Fish goes the extra mile and then some. The film proves that when Tim Burton is in his element, no one can touch him. He does the fantastical like no one else, and Big Fish is his most mature film to date. While films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas all show a twisted yet childlike imagination at work, Big Fish shows Burton’s growth as a director.

In addition to the expert direction, there’s an incredibly strong cast supporting this film. Ewan McGregor is without a doubt one of the best actors working today. He can be stoic, dark and intense and he radiates an endless amount of charm. His winning smile and cornball southern accent are perfectly in tune with the fanciful tone of the film. Outside of Edward’s stories, Crudup and Finney deliver excellent performances that won’t surprise anyone who’s seen their previous work. The two characters interact so well and their father-son bond is so strong it will have you in tears by the end of the film.

There are those that claim there is no such thing as a perfect film, and perhaps they’re right. Danny Elfman’s score is fine, but it’s not his best work and it shows that he has yet to really grow as a composer. Jessica Lange gives a warm and lovely performance, but she could have perhaps benefited from a beefed-up role. But these are incredibly minor complaints. I claimed it as my favorite film of 2003 and will stand by that judgment until I turn irrevocably bitter or Tim Burton decides to do a Special Edition Re-Release and replaces all the characters with damn dirty apes.

This weekend, go see Big Fish. See it with friends, see it with family, see it with whomever or see it alone. If you walk out of the film feeling indifferent, then you’ve probably been staring at a brickwall for two hours and no one’s had the heart to tell you. See the film, mull it over and then see it again. It only gets better.


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