Big Fish

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy Drama Fantasy
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Ewan Mcgregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Alison Lohman, Jessica Lange
Rated: PG-13

Additional Comments: August 16, 2006

In many ways this genial fantasy can be seen as the film where Tim Burton grew up. Yes, its utterly fantastic storyline — adapted from a not terribly good novel by Daniel Wallace — is no different from the bulk of Burton’s work. It can even be seen as a distillation of much of his earlier work. But the approach is different: Big Fish (2003) is the first Burton movie that actually manages to deal with an adult romantic relationship — actually two of them — and he’s surprisingly good at it. This is something of a shock coming from the guy who managed to make an almost completely asexual film about a transvestite filmmaker (Ed Wood (1994))!

But the film is more than that. It’s also one of the most eloquent films any filmmaker has ever made about his own approach to filmmaking and storytelling. Big Fish could be seen as Burton justifying his earlier work, but why? Burton’s filmography is its own justification. Think of it instead as a beautiful summation of that work — and a meditation on the possibility of fantasy being a lot nearer reality than you might think.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

Original Review: January 7, 2004

I doubt Tim Burton will listen to me — I think he’s still cheesed that I wrote an unauthorized biography about him — but I have a piece of advice for the director: always make movies about characters named Ed.

First Burton gave us Edward Scissorhands, and then there was Ed Wood. Now we have Edward Bloom, the hero of Burton’s latest film, Big Fish. And while Edward Bloom may not get his name in the new film’s title, he certainly joins the other two Edwards as a classic Tim Burton character.

If you were pining for Burton to recover from proving that he could make a “normal” film with Planet of the Apes (where he didn’t so much make a normal movie as an ordinary one), your wait is over, and your patience has been rewarded. For my money, Big Fish is not only the best movie of 2003, but one of Burton’s greatest works as well, and a splendid reminder that he is quite possibly the most-talented American filmmaker working today. Certainly, he’s one of the most unusual and distinctive.

Though based on a book by Daniel Wallace (Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions), it’s hard to imagine a story that’s more quintessentially Burtonesque. Indeed, this may be his most personal film yet. All of Burton’s work (even the much-maligned Planet of the Apes) has centered on characters who are somehow different — who are somehow outside the realm of so-called “normal” society. Big Fish is no exception. In fact, it offers an entire society of such enigmatic characters: a witch, a werewolf, Siamese twins, a giant, a reclusive woman with a horde of cats, and so on. And they’re all observed with the good humor and sense of understanding and love that Burton has always evidenced for such characters.

But there’s a new development this time — the character of Edward Bloom himself. Played as an older man by Albert Finney and as a younger one by Ewan McGregor, Edward is a storyteller. Moreover, he’s a teller of improbably tall tales — fish stories, if you will — with himself at their center. The world he inhabits is one of fantastic characters and improbable occurrences — rather like, well, the one Tim Burton inhabits in his own head and puts out into the world through his art.

While all of the director’s main characters might be said to resemble the filmmaker in some way, Ed Bloom is the first one who connects to Tim Burton the storyteller. In many ways, Ed can be viewed as a justification for Burton’s own — sometimes criticized — approach to a story. Even as Ed Bloom is dying from cancer, he clings to his tall tales, much to the chagrin of his alienated son, Will (Billy Crudup), who hates his father’s yarns — not in the least because Will feels they mostly serve to make Ed the center of attention at everyone else’s expense. Ed’s defense is simply that anyone can give you the bare facts of a story, but that the chances are it won’t be very interesting. However, the tales he tells — realistic or not — are nothing if not interesting.

Is Burton here justifying his own body of work? Is he answering his critics who say he can’t tell a coherent, straightforward story? Perhaps — though I personally don’t feel that he needs to justify anything.

But whether you choose to view the film as an extension of Burton’s own personality or simply as another of the director’s tall tales, Big Fish is a marvel of a movie. It’s warm, human and witty, and made with a brilliance you don’t often see. The story works on so many levels at once — Ed’s life story, Ed’s relationship with his son, Ed’s dying — that it’s surprising to look back over the film at its end and realize that Burton has taken us through a virtual maze of tales, times and themes, and never once tripped himself up.

At the center is not just Will coming to terms with his father’s stories, but accepting his place in them — and the legacy he’s about to inherit. It’s difficult to discuss too specifically certain aspects of Big Fish and not damage its constantly wonderful surprises, so I’m not going to tempt fate too much on that score. Just remember as you watch it that this is the logical outgrowth of the man whose work has always tended to find the fantastic beneath the normal — who himself prefers the adorned truth to the dull fact. This is, after all, the same man who took the suburbia of his childhood and stuck a fantastic castle — like one a child might imagine or wish for — at the end of the street in Edward Scissorhands. His new film is like that fortress — mysterious, fascinating and utterly satisfying. And it is to Burton’s filmography what that castle is to his suburban street.

Beautifully acted by a perfect ensemble cast, photographed with rare beauty by Philippe Rousselot (Planet of the Apes) and boasting one of Danny Elfman’s best scores, this is one movie not to be missed.

They don’t get much better than this!

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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