May 20, 2003
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard, Matthew McGrory, David Denman, Missi Pyle, Loudon Wainwright III, Ada Tai, Arlene Tai, Steve Buscemi, ,
Tim Burton’s adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s book about a big man, a big story and a big fish.
You would be forgiven for worrying that Tim Burton was losing his mojo, what with the less than exceptional remake of Planet of the Apes and an entire year wasted on a certain Superman movie that has yet to see the light of day. Thank God then for Daniel Wallace. His whimsical modern-day Wizard of Oz story about the eccentric life of Edward Bloom had attracted attention from the big Hollywood players like Steven Spielberg before it had even been published. Spielberg and his preferred star Jack Nicholson eventually passed and Burton, having recently lost his own father, was immediately drawn to the script.
Critics were so impressed with the film that they labeled it ‘a departure for Burton’. But is anything particularly different here from his previous work? He’s always been drawn to odd stories (Edward Scissorhands), odd characters (Ed Wood) and odd visuals (see all). The only stand-out here is that for once Burton paints a realistic portrait of a contemporary family, only moving into the surreal when we’re viewing one of Ed Bloom’s wild tales. And this allows him to be Burton with a capital B, with gothic witches, haunted forests and kooky small town characters.
We meet William Bloom (Crudup) at the beginning of the movie with his father Ed (Finney) recounting the story of how he caught a big fish the day his son was born, and Will decides he’s heard one story too many. Sick of his father’s outlandish embellishments of the truth, Will storms off and they don’t talk for three years. Temporarily reconciling when Ed gets sick, Will and his wife come home to stay with his parents and try to discover the truth about Ed’s life story before it’s too late. Can he separate the truth from the fiction?
Big Fish is essentially a collection of short mythological stories mixed in together and, first time around, the film does feel patchy. Like Will, you know there are huge gaps in Ed’s story and can’t help but wonder if the film would have benefited from being a little longer. The women have little to do (Lohman and Lange are great actresses, but the script reveals nothing about Sandra’s personality or back-story, leaving her as the trademark perfect wife), but then you could argue that the story is about fathers and sons, not wives and daughters. And the first appearance of the young Sandra at the circus is worth the price of admission alone. Not since Johnny Depp laid eyes on Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands has the blend of Burton’s visuals and Elfman’s score melded so perfectly to create an iconic moment of cinema. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for those Kiwis, Elfman would have walked away with Best Score at this year’s Oscars.
Buscemi has fun as poet-turned-criminal and Bonham Carter steals an entire scene from McGregor using just her eyes. McGregor and Finney are both charming as young and old versions of Ed Bloom, the visuals are amazing and if you don’t finish watching the film with a grin then you have a heart of stone. Big Fish may not be perfect, but when it’s good it’s very good. And that’s not bad.
Ignoring Planet of the Apes (and let’s face it, most people did, although the film was pointless rather than a bad film in itself) Big Fish is easily one of the best Burton DVDs around. A series of featurettes are split into three groups: The Character’s Journey, The Filmmakers’ Path and A Fairytale World, which all include interviews with cast and crew. Note these features are also to be found scattered as icons throughout the movie ala The Matrix – a rather pointless and misleading exercise that stinks of padding. But solve the Tim Burton Trivia Quiz and you’ll be rewarded with a clip that shows how the circus time-freeze was accomplished.
The big man’s commentaries have always been rather disappointing (a few nibbles of trivia in-between long awkward silences) so some clever fellow came up with the idea of having one of his biographers prompting him with questions throughout. And it works. Burton talks almost non-stop about everything from casting to avoiding CGI, and even mentions some deleted scenes you won’t find on the disc.
Big Fish is one of the best films of the year and with any luck Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will be just as good.