Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Director: Tim Burton
Principals: Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Ewan McGregor, Jessica Lange
Rating: PG-13 (mild suggestive situations, brief partial nudity)
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMCom) -- American folklore is filled with tales of amazing deeds and oversized characters. In director Tim Burton’s mesmerizing new film, Big Fish, we meet Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) who is determined to see his life recalled as one of those fantastic tales. As Ed shares the story of his life from his deathbed, we are left to ponder where fact leaves off and fantasy begins, and more importantly, can we tell the difference between what is merely true, and what is profound truth.
"There are some fish that cannot be caught," says retired traveling salesman Edward Bloom. "It’s not that they’re faster or stronger than other fish. They’re just touched by something extra." But for his son Will (Billy Crudup) separating the fact from the fiction of his dying father’s life is as slippery as a fish that keeps getting away.
Young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) is determined to see his life recalled as one fantastic tale in Tim Burton’s Big Fish. Copyright © 2003 Columbia Pictures
For those of you wishing to leave behind memories of Burton’s plodding remake of Planet of the Apes, this is a return to form, and Burton’s best film since the similarly allegorical Edward Scissorhands. Leave it to a dreamer like Burton to have enough imagination to capture the world of a habitual fantasist, who lives with one toe in reality and the other nine in a world of fairy tales. While Burton’s imagination takes full flight in this adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, the defining element is not fantasy, but reality: the reality of family bonds-built and broken-the reality of the devotion between a husband and a wife and the depth of the emotions that surface during life-changing experiences.
Big Fish revolves around the anticipation of two such experiences-the impending birth of Will’s first child and Edward Bloom’s eminent exit from the great stage on which he has played his life. Father and son have long been estranged, partly because of Edward’s outlandish tall tales about his life-tales populated by lonely giants, playful werewolves and mysterious mermaids. Though weakened by cancer, and sensing his son’s need to finally connect with the reality of his father’s life, Ed persists by answering his son’s questions with the same stories that entertained him as a child, but frustrate him so as an adult. Will, who is now a newspaper reporter, sees life as the sum of its irrefutable facts, but Edward sees life as a series of revelations and lessons.
Edward (Ewan McGregor) and Sandra Bloom (Alison Lohman) falling in love as young adults in Big Fish. Copyright © 2003 Columbia Pictures
I won’t reveal much more of the story, because that would rob you of its magic. But just as Edward himself might, I will share its revelations and lessons. The casting and performances are true revelations; Finney and Crudup are marvelous as father and son, fighting against time to fully connect. As Will says, "We’re a pair of strangers, who know each other real well." But they are equaled by the luminous Jessica Lange, as Edward’s compassionate wife Sandra and the uncannily similar pair of Ewan McGregor and Alison Lohman as the couple in their youth. McGregor hits just the right notes as the young man with big dreams and a bigger heart who sets off from his small Alabama hometown to be a "big fish" in a big pond. Ironically, his love for Sandra, whom he meets while traveling with a circus, leads him right back to that small town he left.
As you might guess, the story is full of lessons. In fact, each of Edward’s tall tales is a parable of sorts, meant to teach a life lesson to his son Will, and him give a glimpse into his father’s soul. In ancient times, before we had movies and television, stories were passed town from father to son, mother to daughter. These stories conveyed the history and values of their people. In this way, Edward Bloom is not self aggrandizing, as his son suspects, but passing on truths, rather than facts. In so doing, he actually teaches his son about kindness, persistence, love, honesty and fidelity. As they grow closer, even as Edward’s end nears, the son finally sees his father as the young man he once was, and the father sees his son as the grown man he has become.
Suffering from cancer, Edward (Albert Finney) is carried to the river by his son Will Bloom. Copyright © 2003 Columbia Pictures
Asked once by Will to "stick to the facts" while telling a story, Edward replies, "Then we’d have all of the facts, but none of the flavor!" And that’s the lesson of Big Fish, to savor the magic, the wonder, the boundless possibilities and all the flavor of life. With this fish-story, the flavor is sweet!
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.