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There’s never been a scientific study done to determine Tim Burton’s most beloved movie, but I’m pretty comfortable in saying it’s Edward Scissorhands. For most people, that seems to be the film that best portrays Burton in all his Burton-ish wonder. If you were to put that one aside however, you’d probably hear a pretty diverse group of opinions. A lot of people really into film would say Ed Wood. Weirdos would say Beetlejuice or Mars Attacks. Those more into the macabre would extol the virtues of Corpse Bride or Sweeney Todd. You’d get a wide range of answers, but one film you wouldn’t hear selected very often is Big Fish, which makes no sense to me considering I think it’s overtly Burton’s best work. Hear me out…
The director’s primary skill is creating alternate worlds and strange places. He has an incredible gift of perfectly matching tone and scenery. Everything about the locations he transports audiences to are vivid and full of wonder, even if they’re dreary and desolate. More than anything else, those picturesque backdrops are the reason why he’s famous, and in no film is he able to create more places of wonder than in Big Fish.
In each of Edward Bloom’s stories, Burton finds fertile ground to play and create magical and unforgettable pictures. There’s the circus, stuffed to the brim with giants, midgets, clowns, wild animals, racing motorcycles, popcorn-filled freeze frames and even a werewolf. There’s the town of Spectre, boasting the greenest grass I’ve ever seen and the most unnervingly happy residents anyone has ever spoken to. There’s Auburn University, lined with beautiful white sorority buildings and more daffodils than one could ever count. And most importantly, there’s the real world.
The real world isn’t often a place to be cherished in Tim Burton films, and the characters who most resemble us aren’t often the ones we remember. Normalcy just isn’t really his style, but in Big Fish, there’s just as much beauty to be found in Edward Bloom’s bedridden storyteller as there is in the giant catfish he spends his hours trying to catch. I wouldn’t dare tell you humanity doesn’t lie at the heart of even the strangest Burton creations, but here, there is reality and a familiarity to Will, Josephine, Sandra and even Edward himself.
I think that’s why I fell in love with Big Fish so much the first time I saw it. There’s a wonderful balance to the movie thanks to clever pacing. Just as we’re beginning to forget the trappings of the real world amidst a journey behind enemy lines in World War II, we’re thrust back into a dying man’s bedroom. Just as we begin to grow irritated with Edward’s bloviating, we’re allowed to see him act out another one of his enchanting yarns. Big Fish is remarkably organized and careful, and those aren’t necessarily qualities found in the rest of the director’s catalog.
Tim Burton has made a lot of wonderful movies, but none offer as many smiles, heartbreaks and beautiful pictures as Big Fish. It starts with an amusing anecdote learned in adolescence and ends with a dying man being sent off in the most fitting way possible. In between, we’re given one hell of a story, told in a way only Burton could possibly hope to capture. Big Fish is Tim Burton’s best movie, and if you don’t believe me, you should watch it again.