Big Fish is Tim Burton at his least imaginative. Through a father’s fables, he creates a mildly interesting world of semi-plausible freaks and geeks to teach us a poignant lesson or two about living. Yeah, it’s a little preachy and silly but Burton manages to pull it off with a slam bang ending that’ll leave you cranking out tears.
In a lot of ways, Big Fish is reminiscent of Secondhand Lions, a film which came out earlier this year. Both bask in the glory of the aged and revel in the storytelling of exploits long gone dead days. Only, because Big Fish is a Burton movie, it ends up being wackier, featuring a mildly odd group of circus performers and Siamese twins as we see the life of Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney) in the form of fantastical stories he tells to his son. But his son Will (Billy Crudup), having heard his father’s stories a hundred times before, feels he doesn’t really know his Dad, because he’s never heard the truth. Will resents the fact that he believed his father’s crazy tales, in his words, “longer than he should have.” With his father on his death bed, Will tries to get his father to relive his life as it really was, only to discover that mixed into his tall tales is the truth of who Edward Bloom really was.
But for the purposes of film, Edwards Bloom’s stories really aren’t all that interesting. Burton seems to be attempting to be weird just because we expect it of him, not because he has anything interesting to say. In Edward Scissorhands, Burton creates a tortured and lost character with scissor-shaped hands. In Big Fish the best he could come up with was a town where people don’t wear shoes. Most of Edward Bloom’s life is best described as silly. There are a lot of stories about witches and giants, most of them rendered with less than satisfactory effects and only mildly interesting musical accompaniment. Some of it is heartwarming and fun, but a lot of it is just plain dumb. Edward told his stories for his son, which is perhaps why on screen they feel like child’s play.
What keeps this movie from becoming just another holiday footnote is a fantastic ending which brings all the silliness together to form a cohesive and emotional whole. You may spend most of Big Fish snickering at it’s low budget foolishness, but you’ll leave bawling your eyes out, as Burton builds on these wildly wacky tales to make you fall in love with Edward Bloom. What works in Big Fish isn’t the journey, but the payoff you get for sitting through it. That makes Big Fish a nice little movie and a departure from Burton’s usual style, but hardly this proven director’s best.
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