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Or, Lies My Father Told Me

Once upon a time I thought Tim Burton could do no wrong. He gave me some of my favorite films as a child--Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, even Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

But then...he confused me with Ed Wood. He failed to connect with Mars Attacks, disappointed somewhat with Sleepy Hollow, and left me utterly demoralized by Planet of the Apes. A great light, I thought, had gone out.

The critics may, and many have, disagreed; but I think that with Big Fish Tim Burton has found himself. Or at least, he found me.

Casting the Bait

Reeling Us In

The cast continues at length, but these are the principal and most recognizable players.


  • 110 minutes
  • Rated PG-13for a fight scene, some images of nudity and a suggestive reference
  • 4 Golden Globe nominations

That's a Whopper (No Spoilers Yet)

Big Fish, in case the advertisements haven't made it clear, is structured around a son's (Will Bloom)attempt to discover the truth about his dying father's (Ed Bloom) life. The latter has been telling fish stories for years, from Will's childhood right through to his wedding day and beyond. The first one you hear is, quite appropriately, about an enormous fish.

Set in the town of Ashton, Alabama, the flashback -style narrative follows Ed Bloom all over the world. The characters and audience relive the tall tales as Ewan McGregor's young Ed Bloom charms his way from vignette to vignette, smiling rakishly with good old Southern charm and an initially suspect but eventually acceptable Southern accent. Meanwhile, Billy Crudup, newly married to a French wife and expecting a baby, sits bedside, entirely lacking the sense of whimsy everyone around him--mother, wife, doctor, etc.--seems to embrace.

This much you can gather from the trailer and website.

What you may not get are the characters' motivations. The impetus behind the tall tales--the hero's journey, as it were--is that old familiar chestnut, love. Ed Bloom posits himself as a large man in a small town, who has to go out and experience the greatest things the world has to offer. In this way he discovers Sandra, the love of his life, and many of the tales that follow stem from his desire to secure her for a bride. For Ed Bloom--young Ed Bloom--loving life is as simple as making a decision to do so, and following through; knowing what you want and damning the torpedoes.

You Gonna Swim, or Just Tread Water?

It's a difficult film to review without giving anything away. The plot is so thin that it can't bear too much discussion. Magic realism is definitely at work here, as one would expect, and what happens in the film is far less important than how it happens. You can expect the sort of fanciful imagery you've come to expect from Tim Burton--there are certainly elements of his uniquely bizarre sense of gothic and dark humor--but the subject matter is more sophisticated and human than that which he typically explores. Ed Bloom the figure of tall tales is somewhat superhuman, sure enough, but Ed Bloom the old man is dying in bed with a family doing what it can to keep up each other's spirits. Big Fish has the bittersweet element that if you have a heart brought you to tears in Edward Scissorhands, but it is ultimately removed from the world of fairytale--making it a far more poignant and mature work.

The combination of these elements occasionally feels uneven and sometimes clunky in the telling, but it is overall very beautiful and touching. If you have issues with your father (c'mon boys, fess up) and death (everyone else), and you're in just the right place, the film will hit you where you sleep. I was almost in hysterics.

Bones to Pick

The film is not perfect. I went in not knowing precisely what to expect, and the trailers didn't do it justice--I imagine the cutters had the same trouble that I'm having with this review. Tim Burton fans may initially find the weird not quite weird enough, the strangeness a little too familiar. The accents are a bit dodgy, and Tim Burton's apparent predilection for making brunette actresses dye their hair blonde is finally getting unnerving. Helena Bonham Carter doesn't look old no matter how much you gray her hair, and doesn't do the Southern accent half as well as Ewan, who doesn't do it half as well as Albert Finney, who does it infinitely better than Billy Crudup, who doesn't do it at all.

The film seems to me to be a new kind of work for Tim Burton, and allowances should be made. It gets much better as it goes on and you settle into its project, and the ending is far better than I would have given it credit for at the outset. But the less said about that the better.

Hook, Line, and...oh, enough already.

I recommend the film; it's worth going to see. But I warn that you may be disappointed, and I can certainly see why some critics have not gotten on board. Albert Finney's performance is fantastic, as is Jessica Lange's and even Ewan McGregor's, if tending toward the one-note. Billy Crudup is harmless. But Helena Bonham Carter is, along with Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi, a little out of place. The plot is simplistic, and the pace a bit choked.

That being said, I felt I knew what the film and filmmakers were up to, that they were certainly up to something, and that whatever it was was more valuable than most of what now comes out of Hollywood.

Live your life. It's worth it.

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