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Big Fish   B+

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: John August (based on the novel by Daniel Wallace)
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Matthew McGrory.

Review by Rob Vaux

Along with Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton is perhaps the greatest fantasist working in films today. His unbridled imagination could only be realized on a cinematic canvas, creating visions both unique and breathtaking. His movies aren't always great (he lacks the narrative skills to complement his eye), but they always show us something we've never seen before. It seems inevitable that -- like Gilliam -- he would eventually find a practitioner of tall tales as a subject. Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was an underrated love letter to history's premiere bullshit artist, full of wondrous bombast and the ludicrous made flesh. Burton's Big Fish is far gentler but no less effective. It doesn't celebrate preposterousness so much as the reality hiding behind it, and the belief that the tale is always intermingled with he who tells it.

It also carries a pair of his patented lost little boys, and a typically thin plot that details their struggles to connect with each other. The principle is Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), a beloved small-town icon with a penchant for spinning fabulous stories. His whoppers have endeared him to everyone he ever met... except his son Will (Billy Crudup), who feels lost in their shadow. So wide do they spread and so well-known is the name that the younger man has to move all the way to Paris to carve out a life of his own. When Edward takes ill, Will returns to his home of Ashton, Alabama in an effort to understand the man whose truths lie buried beneath a flurry of fish stories.

Burton's genius bears fruit in presenting Edward through Will's eyes -- unfurling his adventures not through literal reality, but through the fabrications that are the junior Bloom's only reference point. We see Edward first as an 18-year-old, well-played by Ewan McGregor (whose penchant for wide-eyed enthusiasm is utterly disarming). Leaving Ashton in the company of a colossal giant (Matthew McGrory), he embarks upon a long strange life's trip punctuated by a stint in the circus, the rescue of conjoined twins from North Korea, the wooing of his lady love (initially a gorgeous Alison Lohman, later an enchanting Jessica Lange), encounters with werewolves, witches, and poet/bank robbers... and a recurring catfish the size of a loveseat which serves as the film's title.

The shortcomings of such a structure are to be expected from Burton, for whom "strong plot" is an alien term. Big Fish suffers from occasional shaggy dog syndrome, as Edward's recollections dissolve into a series of vignettes -- charming, but not entirely unified. The director keeps his course by maintaining a lovely tone, and by never losing sight of the two men at film's heart. Every anecdote connects in some way to Edward's journey, every story illustrates some new quality about the man. As Will slowly learns, their accuracy is irrelevant; it's the tone and timbre from which his father derives meaning. That gradual discovery transforms Big Fish's imagery into a subtly powerful character study.

With a backbone like that, Burton's meandering tendencies can be easily forgiven, especially when the lush visions begin appearing on-screen. Though they're sometimes as scattershot as the stories themselves, their potency is undeniable -- and the ever-present McGregor helps maintain a common thread. Crudup's button-down sensibilities make a fine riposte to all the balderdash, and Burton coaxes some endearing turns from a cast of regulars and newcomers alike.

Most of all, it's the respect for the material that makes Big Fish so worthwhile. Burton's lesser efforts smack of distraction, of enforced subjects that he doodles around to maintain our interest. Here, he demonstrates an overwhelming affection for both of the Bloom boys, and applies himself gallantly towards their betterment. Big Fish overcomes it modest flaws through the strength of his faith, and the heartfelt lesson that something doesn't have to be factual to be true.

Review published 12.09.2003.

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