Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Matthew McGrory, Missi Pyle, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Deep Roy, Marion Cotillard
Written by: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace
Directed by: Tim Burton
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a fight scene, some images of nudity and a suggestive reference
Running Time: 125
Date: 12/10/2003

Big Fish (2003)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Catching a Whopper

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With Big Fish, the former boy genius director Tim Burton works from two new angles. He embraces the art of storytelling for the first time and gives us his first glimpse of "realism." It may make Burton sound like a no-talent hack for never trying these basic things before. Very simply, Burton has up to now only been interested in characters and places. He has conjured up bizarre, damaged heroes and villains, placed them within the context of some lopsided world, and set them loose.

Within that format, he has been almost entirely successful, from his feature debut at age 26, the cult classic Pee-wee's Big Adventure, to his blockbuster Batman films and his masterworks Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Only 2001's Planet of the Apes was a complete failure, and so it's difficult to ascertain whether Big Fish is a response to that fiasco, or if it's simply life's next step for the now-45 year-old filmmaker.

Nevertheless, Big Fish moves with great beauty and almost relies on some unknown magical force to hold its fragile foundations together. Albert Finney stars in the present-day, "realistic" scenes as an aging, dying Edward Bloom. Though he and his son William (Billy Crudup) have barely spoken for years, the son joins the father for his final days.

The no-nonsense journalist William can't connect with his father, who has spent his life telling tall tales of his youthful exploits. William wants to know who his father really is, the truth behind the whoppers. Ewan McGregor plays the young Bloom in the film's fanciful flashbacks, full of the usual Burton color and fantasy. Here Bloom meets a giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory), finds an enchanted town, joins the circus (run by Danny DeVito), falls in love with his future wife (Alison Lohman as a youth and Jessica Lange as an adult), meets a set of singing Korean Siamese twins, sells mechanical hands and robs a bank (with "Mr. Pink" himself, Steve Buscemi).

But above all, he catches a big fish -- which serves as more than one metaphor -- on the day his son is born. Part of Bloom's fearlessness comes from a particular story from his childhood. Meeting a witch (Burton's current love Helena Bonham-Carter), he sees the moment of his own death, and thus knows when he's going to die. Some viewers will no doubt compare Big Fish to the overrated Forrest Gump, but the two films could not differ more. For one thing, Big Fish celebrates thinking and intelligence -- rather than unquestioning idiocy and coincidence -- and it adores its women characters. Burton gets two of his trademark ethereal blondes in the film (Lohman and Lange) as well as Bonham-Carter occupying two pivotal roles.

Burton uses Finney's throaty voice to full storytelling potential, and the casting director should get a special award for realizing that Lohman looks just like a young Lange. Not to mention that the usually passive Crudup has finally found his perfect role; he's the seeker of truth, the observer who never participates. Taken from a script by John August and based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish speaks directly from Burton's sensibility -- it may be the most personal film he's yet made. The argument between father and son -- fact vs. fiction, objective vs. subjective, is a war that Burton no doubt wages in his own mind. Should he move on to "realistic" stories, or stay in his fantasy world? Which is more "real" or "truthful"?

Moreover, the realistic scenes have a kind of bittersweet tone to them, as if Burton were testing the water for the first time and realizing that he may belong there. They ring with the eternal sadness of someone leaving childish things behind. It's in these sequences that Burton allows his characters to tell one or two stories verbally without visual aids or flashbacks, and they're the saddest tales of all.

Note: Big Fish certainly holds up to a second viewing, and I don't regret my four-star rating at all. Columbia/TriStar's new DVD looks and sounds great, and by the time Pearl Jam's closing credits song "Man of the Hour" poured through my speakers, I was all choked up. The disc comes with a Tim Burton commentary track, this time moderated by a journalist who coaxes the sometimes reticent Burton through. The disc also comes with several featurettes, plus an option to watch them in context with the film. In addition, we have a trivia quiz, optional English and French subtitles and optional French language soundtrack. Finally, the disc comes with an impressive trailer gallery including new films like 13 Going on 30 and Spider-Man 2, as well as soon-to-be-released DVDs like Robert Altman's superb The Company and the Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville.

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