2003Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup
n a pivotal father/son reconciliation scene in Tim Burton’s new film, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces is visible on the bedside desk. This is important. In his preface, Campbell quotes Sigmund Freud on the dangers of “telling the truth in symbolic clothing.” A child “hears only the distorted part of what we say, and feels that he has been deceived…we have become convinced that it is better to avoid such symbolic disguising of the truth in what we tell children…” This is some heavy thinking for what is essentially a family film, but Big Fish is the work of an ambitious storyteller, one who understands that myths are a form of truth.
Tim Burton, after all, knows the power of a tall tale. By ignoring realism, that alien concept, he’s created some of the most imaginative films of the past two decades. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a funhouse of near-nihilistic proportions, and perhaps the most entertaining kids’ film ever made. Batman and Batman Returns set the bar for modern comic book adaptations with their blend of the suave and the dangerous—not to mention some inspired casting decisions. Ed Wood is an insanely beautiful love letter to the cinema of outsiders, to the B-movies and shock-horror freak shows of the black-and-white era. Burton is an emphatic proponent of the belief that we go to the movies to be transported; film the legend, not the truth.
Burton’s new film Big Fish is about a mythmaker, a Southerner named Edward Bloom (played by two Brits—Ewan McGregor as a youngster and Albert Finney as an older man), who with every anecdote renders himself larger than life. His shaky relationship with his son William (Billy Crudup) is his only failure; William can’t reconcile the man with the myth, and slowly discovers them to be one and the same.
Big Fish is an Alabama epic in the vein of Forrest Gump, charting a modern odyssey through several decades, with an assortment of tall tales and oddball side players. A group of kids glimpse their future deaths in a witch’s glass eye. A giant terrorizes a town and is invited to become a circus performer. A Siamese twin performance duo helps Bloom escape combat in World War II. And the power of love at first sight is so strong it literally stops time. Big Fish’s narrative is so imaginative and so marvelously executed that disbelief is hardly an option.
Rounding out the cast are Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman as Edward’s wife at different ages, Danny DeVito as a circus conductor, and Steve Buscemi as a small-town poet laureate of questionable talent. Helena Bonham Carter, a holdover from Burton’s Planet of the Apes debacle, plays an old acquaintance and unrequited lover of Edward’s, but her subplot is poorly developed and could have easily been excised from the film. However, Big Fish’s length is a minor quibble; films this enjoyable can take their time.
Burton’s films are well-loved because of their warmth, often in spite of dark subject matter. Big Fish, written by John August and based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, is one of his lightest, most heartwarming films, and one of his best. It’s a film about fathers and sons that families of all ages will enjoy, and a buoyant, entertaining testament to the supreme authority of good storytelling.
By: Akiva Gottlieb
Published on: 2003-11-24