Big Fish (2003) / Fantasy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for mild violence, brief nudity and adult situations
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Robert Guillaume, Matthew McGrory
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: John August (based on the novel, "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions", by Daniel Wallace)
Review published December 17, 2003
I have a feeling that Tim Burton's Big Fish will be one of those films that is underappreciated at the time of its release, but gains esteem with time and repeated viewings throughout one's life. It's a story that is hard to fully grasp the first time though, and I suspect that as the life experiences change, so will the movie, at least from the perspective of the viewer's eye. Some will likely compare this film to Forrest Gump, and it's easy to see why. Both Gump and Fish are about young southern boys who have extraordinary lives, full of strange coincidences, surreal situations, and uniquely bizarre characters, and somehow, amidst all of the things weird and wonderful, a heartwarming tale emerges. However, Big Fish covers entirely different thematic ground than Forrest Gump, lending a more cynical eye to the tale, questioning whether a man could truly have a fairy tale life, or if fantastic stories are merely invented to make life seem more meaningful.
At heart, Big Fish is really a father and son story, with Billy Crudup playing the thirty-something man who has grown tired of hearing his ebullient father (Finney) spin yarns about his life. Even after all of their years together, he feels he never really has gotten to know his father, and with his life coming to a close, he attempts to find out who dad really is, other than an imaginative liar. The more he digs, the less certain he becomes, as the real and the imaginary seem to be indistinguishable from each other.
Word is that Steven Spielberg had been attached to this movie early on, and to some extent, I'm somewhat disappointed that he didn't direct it, as I personally feel he would have made it an instant classic. That's not to take anything away from Tim Burton, as he does a fine job here, showing that he can play a much more subtle hand when he needs to, employing less of the dark themes that sometimes tend to creep into his usual innocent endeavors (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice). It's a highly imaginative story, and with Burton's flair for conjuring up the fantastic, it's a good fit with the material. If there's a down side, there are a few emotional scenes that might have been better served with less superficial characterizations, but I suppose this is the sort of tale that might fall apart with too much realism.
Of course, where there's Burton, there's also composer Danny Elfman (Sleepy Hollow, Batman), and as expected, he delivers another nice score, perfectly suited to the whimsical, magical story that Big Fish is. Burton also employs a terrific cinematographer, Philipe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It, Dangerous Liaisons), with rich landscape environments and a depth in scope, particularly effective in contrasting the mundane world to those of the fantastical in the wild stories. John August (Go, Charlie's Angels) provides a good adaptation of Daniel Wallace's novel, with excellent use of motifs and allusions that keeps with the literary roots.
I won't spoil anything for the reader here by saying that the ending, while somewhat predictable in terms of the events, is extremely satisfying. Many films handling this sort of material sputter to cross the finish line, not knowing how to handle the moments when all the cards are shown and the truth is revealed. Not so with Big Fish, which actually takes these larger-than-life characters and makes a brilliantly fitting, and oddly touching, final few scenes that turns a well-made, quirky film into one that viewers who are "hooked in" to the story will definitely appreciate.
Fans of Burton will rejoice at seeing him mature into a better filmmaker, although there is an element of his fans that will scoff that he would make such a non-edgy family piece. However, it's good to see that he would use his visual talents to bolster the story without overrunning the film with unevenness in tone or inability to cement the emotional aspects, as he has been known to do. Followers of Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney should be very pleased at seeing them in roles in which they bring much of their characters to life in a fun way.
Big Fish should not be seen as a rip-off of, so much as a fine companion piece to, Forrest Gump, and its mythical slice of 20th Century Americana. It's one of those magical films that will either completely enthrall you or miss you altogether, so keep an open mind, and even if you're not a fan the first time around, I'm going to guess that, like fine wine, this will age well. Watch it now, and watch it again in 10 years.
©2003 Vince Leo