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BIG FISH

2003, dir. Tim Burton
125 min. Rated PG-13.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange.

Review by Noel Wood

It's never been a secret that I'm a Tim Burton fan. My love for Burton, however, is a lot different for my love for many of the other filmmakers whose work I appreciate. You see, I remember watching PEE-WEE's BIG ADVENTURE in the theater at a mere ten years young, and quickly declared that it was my favorite movie of all time. It was also the first time in my life that I ever recognized the idea of a "director," as the name Tim Burton stuck in my craw. It was because of this fact that when BEETLEJUICE came out a few years later, the director's name was enough to get me in to a theater to see the film. The crowning jewel, of course, was BATMAN, which hit theaters in my early adolescent days when I was starting to appreciate more elements of a movie. At a mere fourteen years old, I could easily identify the work of Burton and loved it.

So while I might have developed my appreciation for Kubrick or Hitchcock or Scorcese as an adult, studying thematic elements and technical expertise in their work, I developed my appreciation for Tim Burton as a naive kid who liked to watch movies. As I grew older, I started to appreciate more of what Burton was doing behind the scenes, but I still loved him primarily for bringing me some of the favorite movies of my childhood.

Burton has always taken a lot of flak from critics who like to spout things off about him being visually gifted but unable to tell a good story. Nowadays, these critics are saying that BIG FISH changes all that, and that he's finally able to tell a good story. Yes, BIG FISH tells a terrific story, but you can't possibly tell me that EDWARD SCISSORHANDS didn't do the same thing fourteen years ago. Sure, it's a simple story, but nobody who counts ever said that a story needs to be complex to be good. Most of Burton's work either didn't really require a story (see MARS ATTACKS, PEE-WEE, or BEETLEJUICE) or was at least loosely based on an existing story (SLEEPY HOLLOW, BATMAN, or ED WOOD.) BIG FISH (based on a novel to begin with) also contains a fairly simple story, combines it with the visual elements that Burton is famous for, and the end result is a fun and touching little movie that may not pioneer a lot of new ground for ther medium but sure stands out as one of the most entertaining films of the year.

BIG FISH tells the story of Edward Bloom, a man who has quite a knack for stetching the truth. Not only that, but he'll tell his stories to anyone who will listen. One person who has heard his share of these stories is his son Will, who has become estranged with his father after a falling out (based, of course, on dad's propensity to hog the spotlight with his tall tales.) As Edward has grown ill, however, his wife attempts to reunite the two.

But while this is all going on in the modern world, the more interesting component of the film begins to unwind, as Edward tells those tall tales to the viewer. We learn of his encounter with a witch that allows him to see his own fate in the reflection of a glass eye. We see his encounter with a sheep-stealing giant who lives on the outskirts of town, which eventually leads to a lifelong friendship. We discover the path that leads him to meeting his wife, which includes a stint working for a carnival inhabited by werewolves, two-headed dancers, and other assorted freaks. And, most importantly, we see his life dramatically changing based on a chance encounter with a fantastic little Alabama town called Spectre.

These fantasy-rich flashback sequences bring out the fire and spirit that Tim Burton is best known for. It almost seems as if this story was written specifically for the purpose of becoming what could be viewed as Burton's first "grown-up" film. The themes represented in the tall tales just scream to be Burtonized, and he does an amazing job in bringing them to life. On the other hand, the look of the film doesn't exacly scream out Burton, either. Gone are the over-the-top stop motion animation sequences and dark atmosphere. This isn't a film that could be a natural progression from, say, BEETLEJUICE. However, it is the kind of film Burton fans would have to be hoping for at this stage in his career, especially after that whole PLANET OF THE APES fiasco.

The fact of the matter is that any old hack could have directed this film and made it watchable. The story is enchanting enough on its own. But Burton takes it that extra mile, adding a special touch that only someone with his vision could pull off. At the same time, Burton could have gone the whole nine yards and made this film as grandiose and quirky as his earlier works, and it wouldn't work nearly as well. The amount of restraint shown by Burton proves that he has progressed quite nicely as a filmmaker, even if he still can't resist plugging his girlfriends into his films.

But that's forgiveable here as well, because Helena Bonham Carter joins a nearly flawless cast for this film. The lead role, Edward, gets a tag team workout from two very talented performers, Ewan MacGregor and Albert Finney. The similarities in the two actors' portrayals of the character are amazing, and it's no stretch to imagine them as the same person. Likewise, the physical similairities between Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman as Edward's wife Sandra are uncanny. Billy Crudup, Steve Buscemi, and Danny Devito also lend their talents to this amazing cast, but the real standout is Matthew McGory as the gentle giant Karl. It's hard not to stand out when you're 7'6", but the actor does an amazing job in creating a sympathetic and funny character out of Karl. There's not a weak performance in the lot, actually. Underused, perhaps, but never weak.

The film works its way into an emotional whirlpool for the big heart-tugging ending, but still manages to avoid delving into saccharine levels. When it's all said and done, what you have is a great story which just so happened to serve as a nice little vehicle for Tim Burton to show off his goods. No, the film doesn't exactly break ground. There are obvious similairities to FORREST GUMP in the way the narrative is constructed, and while the film looks beautiful, there are no real bold or sweeping new special effect techniques played here. But this is, in the best way I can put it, from the point of view of both me as a movie watcher and a critic, a good movie. That's really about the most succint thing you can say about it.

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