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
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.
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
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
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