Big Fish (2003)

Tim Burton took a critical beating for the bland and unfelt Planet of the Apes remake, a project which might have been undertaken as a reaction to the way the commercial acceptability of near-masterpieces like Batman Returns, Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! was limited by lingering distrust of his purported 'darkness'. Burton retains the status of an A-list Hollywood director, at once a brand-name eccentric and – unlike the comparable Terry Gilliam - a safe pair of hands for an expensive fantasy. Nevertheless, he is as resolute about exploring his own autobiography through film projects as, say, Woody Allen or Terence Davies. Here, working from a novel by Daniel Wallace and a script by John August, Burton is gifted with a third major Edward to follow Scissorhands and Wood: Edward Bloom, an Alabama tale-spinner incarnated at different ages by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, the surname providing a link via James Joyce's Leo to the primal wanderer-from-home, Ulysses. The casting of British players reflects Burton's lack of interest in Wallace's specific Alabama grounding for the magical distractions of Bloom's tall stories – this has nothing like the sense of a mythologised real place that informs the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, another American regional Odyssey.

It has been said that of all the classic heroes, Ulysses is the most rounded because he is seen as a son, a husband and a father. Fathers in Burton's earlier films have tended to be either ineffectual boobs with no understanding of goth-inclined daughters (Alan Arkin in Edward Scissorhands, Jeffrey Jones in Beetle Juice) or selfish cameo tyrants contributing to the transformation of sons into villains (Paul Reubens in Batman Returns, Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes). Big Fish reflects a shift presumably connected with its director's impending fatherhood, in that the fantasist here is a father whose sternest critic is an estranged son and there is at least some attempt to put a case against Edward Bloom, though the fact that everyone else in his life as forgiven him on his deathbed makes his son's holding-out until the very last appear ill-tempered rather than principled. Though Billy Crudup's Will, a rare 'real' American in a Tim Burton movie and on the point of fatherhood throughout the film, talks about the disillusion he felt on learning that his father's stories weren't all literally true this key moment is never dramatised and is undercut repeatedly by all the evidence that accrues to reveal how close most of them were to a verifiable truth – the giant who shows up at the funeral may not be as gigantic as he is in the flashbacks, but he is still a giant.

A more interesting counter-view of the hero and excluded from the magical gathering of characters in Will's story of Edward's death is the always-bested small-town rival, seen grumpily fed-up as he is overlooked at the scene of Edward's many triumphs, losing his fiancé to the cheerful protagonist and then dropping dead in undignified circumstances (reading Playboy in the john) as foreseen by a vision in the witch's blind eye. Through this minor character, there's a real sense of the insufferability of Edward Bloom, an aspect brought out in McGregor's too-quick grin and Will's complaint that all his stories make the world revolve around Edward without actually revealing much about him. This line weirdly paraphrases criticisms that have been made of Burton's own films: he has always been torn between putting his oddball avatars at the centre of his work and a tendency to express feeling for pop culture artefacts rather than people. Here, we get a rare Burton fantasia that evokes other American magic voyages (the circuses and small towns of Charles G. Finney and Ray Bradbury, the living forest and dream alter egos of The Wizard of Oz, the tall tales of Poe and Mark Twain, the fairytale annotations of William Goldman's The Princess Bride, even oral yarn forms like 'one that got away' fishing stories or 'what Dad did in the war' military exploits) without relying overmuch on the trappings of 1950s and '60s science fiction and horror films that have influenced most of his imaginary worlds, though Danny DeVito does turn out to be a benign werewolf. This is actually a mixed blessing, in that effective or eerie moments – the stopovers in Spectre, a town so perfect no one needs to wear shoes or consider leaving – are sometimes scuppered by self-indulgent byways that raise the dread memory of career-derailing auteur indulgences like Rob Reiner's North or Barry Levinson's Toys.

Burton's best films tend to be displacement exercises – discovering something close to profundity and American myth in comic books, trading cards or filmography footnotes. Here, almost for the first time, he tackles head-on a Big Thumping Theme and secures a clutch of Academy Award nominees and winners to lend weight to characters who aren't quite there (Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange suffer the most, especially since Helena Bonham Carter gets all the fun stuff to do in the multi-faced and elusive other woman/witch role). The father-son stuff, a vital obsession for Steven Spielberg in Catch Me If You Can or Ang Lee in Hulk, feels rote, an attempt to fit in with other people's ideas of cinema and life that assumes a deathbed reconciliation will guarantee an unearned emotional charge in the same way that a joke on a sit-com can elicit canned laughter. Big Fish takes so many byways that it can't help but spark repeatedly to life – a favourite moment is the Red Chinese USO show with regimented ranks of inexpressive audience members entertained by a Maoist ventriloquist and slinky Siamese twin chanteuses – but it also tends, like most fish stories, to sidetrack into tedium with unfortunate regularity.

First Published In: Sight and Sound February 2004

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