Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
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Usually when watching a Tim Burton film, you expect to see a storyline that suffers from a serious ‘Pinocchio’ complex. Most of the time it would involve some sort of strange or freakish character who has to work hard in his quest to be accepted by the people he lives around. Compared to that usual blueprint, ‘Big Fish’ is an anomaly that might stick out like a sore thumb in Burton’s resume. What’s usually dark and creepy is replaced with bright and cheery stories of love, romance and even adventure. It’s amazing that this is film comes from the same gifted director who delivered creepy but entertaining films like ‘Sleepy Hallow’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands’ to the big screen. ‘Big Fish’ is a stunning piece of work that is not only sincere and full of passion, but is based on a world that is normal… well, about as normal as you’re going to get for a Tim Burton movie that is. With characters that are deep and as charming as their stories, it’s a movie that I think many people are going to enjoy from start to finish. The film has a charm that sweeps you off your feet and takes you on a ride that’s almost as remarkable as the character who tells them.
In ‘Big Fish’ we meet Edward Bloom, an old man who is unwilling to part with an image that he spend decades building with tales that some consider too tall to be true. Edward likes to tell these stories not only to entertain whoever happens to be listening, but seems to enjoy living these stories as they’re pieces of the puzzle to the man he really is. The tales are so innocent and every simple that it’s hard for someone to try to figure out which parts of them are try and which are figments of the imagination.
Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor are nothing short of brilliant with performances that bring this unique and interesting character to life. It was interesting to watch both men as they represented the character on opposite ends of the spectrum. Finney plays an old, ailing Bloom who has a foot in death’s door and already on his way to the other side. Yet despite how tired, cranky and even weak the old man gets… you can still see the sparkle of life in his eyes and you know its still the same guy who is portrayed in his younger years by the talented Scottish actor.
Ewan McGregor is equally impressive as the younger version of Finney’s character when the film is in flashback mode. Clearly his best performance since “Trainspotting,” McGregor’s portrayal of Bloom in a way did remind me a little of his performance in Moulin Rouge. His love struck and head over heels, will do anything for love attitude did look familiar yet combine that with Blooms overzealous need to stand out… it makes for a character that is easy to admire and care for throughout the film. Ewan also has a special talent for facial expressions, and they are used to their fullest potential onscreen. One part where this stands out is when Edward is bleeding from a fight, but is grinning from ear to ear because he heard something that made all the pain go away. He’s a mess, but you can tell from McGregor’s wide grin and bright eyes that he barely feels it until he hits the ground.
Both McGregor and Finney were the perfect actors to bring this character to life, and the idea of anyone else doing better is just unimaginable. Some critics have compared this movie to ‘Forest Gump’ mainly because its flashbacks and method of storytelling are very similar, but “Fish” is much better because of its lead character who demands our respect and love, as opposed to the pity we felt for poor, stupid Gump. Edward is the kind of person we’d all like to be. Funny, romantic and with a zest for life that is unmatched. He’s a character that is easy to admire as both Finney and
McGregor have no trouble charming audiences onto their side, regardless if Edward’s tales are fact or fiction…
One of “Big Fish”’s most interesting elements is the conflict between Edward and his son. William Bloom is a reporter, someone who makes a living collecting facts and presenting the truth to the public. His father however is the exact opposite and could care less about facts as he’s more interesting in spinning a yarn that will please and entertain the masses. William knows every story like the back of his hand and is tired of the lies… he wants the truth and a chance to really get to know his father before its too late. Yet Edward is unwilling to budge and begins to recycle the same old fables to whoever will listen to them. There’s really no secret to why some people are drawn into this film’s story. Many people spend a good part of childhood looking up to their father very much like William Bloom did throughout his. We all look to our parent figure and as a young child and as a result we used to think of them as bigger than life itself. Yet as the years pass by, the image begins to peel and we eventually learn the truth: that he’s a flawed human just like the rest of us. William really doesn’t care if his father isn’t perfect, he just wants to know the truth as opposed to the ‘lies’ that have been told so many times, that the young man remembers them word for word. Yet it’s easy to understand why William is so angry at his father. While the stories are entertaining, the constant telling of them has robbed him of the chance to get to know his father behind the fable.
Another thing that I liked about this movie is the fact that it left just enough room for the possibility that Edward just might be telling the truth. There’s a chance he just might as grand as his fables might suggest but the idea is never confirmed nor denied. It slyly leaves the decision to the viewer to choose which side they prefer to be on, which I guess is the safest way to go. There are some stories that don’t seem too off base, and details that are so simple, that it makes someone stop and think about how accurate Edward’s stories are. We learn that some parts of Edward’s stories are indeed true, but many of them are left unanswered which is the best way to leave things… allowing the audience to accept or reject them for their own reasons.
The supporting cast while not as impressive as Finney and McGregor seem to hold their own and make a very positive contribution to the film. Jessica Lange is angelic in her performance as Finney’s soul mate. Her strong and commanding presence in the face of Finney’s illness is inspiring and clearly the strongest female presence in the entire film. While I found Billy Crudup’s performance as William Bloom to be a tad on the stale side, it might have been done that way on purpose because he was supposed to be the opposite of his father who was anything but stale. And how can you go wrong with a gun torting Steve Buscemi? You can’t and even with his limited screen time, he manages to save a few scenes that could have been incredibly boring.
The direction is nothing short of spectacular. “Big Fish” can easily be considered one of Burton’s finest works. Unlike many of his previous films, this one has the potential to reach a wider audience and is actually easier to market to the masses as its a touching film with a story that compliments his style of direction. Usually Burton’s films have a weird character that would be freakish in some way that has a desire to be normal and not the person who sticks out. This time out, we have a character that is as normal as apple pie, and would be nothing more than just an average
joe if it wasn’t for the tall tales he tells to everyone. While the film had all the effects you would expect to see from a Burton production, they never really took center stage, a feat I’m sure was hard for Burton accomplish.
Instead, the characters (especially Edward Bloom) are the focus of the film, with everything else (including effects) in the background used only if it helps the story move along.
The film however still has a few minor flaws. While I can applaud the actors for even trying, the Alabama accents got more annoying as the film went on. The film might have benefited from moving the setting to another state, where this could have been avoided all together instead of settling in Alabama (which happens to be the same state Forest was from, there’s that comparison again). Yet with the material given, the actors do their best to make their characters seem as real as possible, and it succeeds to an extent. One detail that I found amusing is that William Bloom was raised by two parents that both have thick accents, yet he himself has none. While most of the story seemed to flow pretty well, there were some scenes that badly needed the gentle touch of a good editor… as they seemed to drag out and take away from the other scenes.
Overall, “Big Fish” is a touching film that could easily be one of the best films 2003 is most remembered for. Burton has really outdone himself as it’s the most romantic movie I’ve seen since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain.” It’s a fine film that I think many audiences, both
young and old, will enjoy watching as it presents characters that many will enjoy following. Burton has turned a new leaf with this picture, making a bold move to stray away from the kind of movies he’s usually expected to make. It’s a gamble that I think has paid off as “Big Fish” is the kind of film that I think many will enjoy watching. It’s an visual feast but also a character driven film that will impress many, especially for those who wish to get away from the avalanche of epic films that try to hard to overwhelm. “Big Fish” is worth checking out, especially if you’re in the mood to see a film that delivers the kind of passion and character development that one would usually expect to see during the Oscar season.
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Posted on February 2, 2004 in Reviews by Peter Lowry
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