Big Fish (Sony Pictures, 2003)

We all have one -- for me, it's my father; for my husband, his grandfather. Uncles are common, too. Blowhard, fabulist, teller of tall tales at family gatherings -- entertainer of children, and sometime aggravater of adults. Did you ever stop to wonder just how much of any one of the fabulous yarns happened to be true?

In Big Fish, Will Bloom has come home to visit his dying father and to try to discover the real man that he believes exists beneath the tall tales. Will has been estranged from his father for three years; he no longer believes Edward Bloom's cock-and-bull stories -- indeed, he feels shame for having ever believed them even as a child. He has come home to sit by his father's deathbed and insist that he hear the truth.

Problem is, Edward Bloom denies ever having told a lie; his stories, he insists, are true.

The "big fish" of the title refers not only to Edward's "fish stories," but to Edward having been (according to his stories) the "big fish in the little pond" of Ashton, Alabama. Growing up, he was smarter, stronger, braver, and more ambitious than any of the other sons of his generation. As a youth, Edward confronts a witch, befriends a giant, meets a werewolf, finds a lost Paradise, and catches a legendary and uncatchable fish. Will has grown up to realize that his father's tales are all impossible.

Will has some learnin' to do.

This film is by far Tim Burton's best work; John August's adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel gives him a wonderful basis for his work, and Tim runs with it. Far more magical than Beetlejuice or James and the Giant Peach and spectacularly more touching than Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, I couldn't help but feel while watching this film that Tim Burton has finally "gotten it." This is a film filled with the magic of love, need, and the mysteries of the human heart.

The special effects are wondrous; a scene in which time stands still is so beautifully detailed that I found myself unconsciously holding still, holding my breath in order to mesh with the world portrayed onscreen. Yet, this film is one of the finest examples I've ever seen of the visual effects serving the story. Tim Burton has a tendency, though no more so than George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg I suppose, to put effects on the screen that are blatantly intended to "wow" the audience. Such visuals are frequently a distraction from the story. In Big Fish the visuals are necessarily fantastical, meant to bring to life the over-the-top tales Edward tells, and yet the effects in and of themselves seem perfectly right, never over-the-top or excessive.

Billy Crudup is suitably aggravating as the pragmatic realist Will, stubbornly refusing to see his father's magic, though every once in a while he emotes just a little to the left of "pained" and comes up with something more resembling "constipated." Albert Finney is superb as Old Edward, blustery and yet down to earth, and Jessica Lange is utterly lovely as the mature Sandra Bloom. Alison Lohman is uncannily perfect as Young Sandra, with Helena Bonham Carter poignantly luminous as Jenny, and poignantly creepy as the Old Witch.

The real standout performance, of course, is Ewan McGregor as Young Ed -- fresh faced, kind, brave, generous, tough, with a wisdom beyond his years, McGregor portrays Ed as Sir Galahad, James Dean and Beaver Cleaver all rolled into one. But there are no bad performances here; from Steve Buscemi as poet turned Wall Street financier Norther Winslow, to Danny DeVito as scheming carnival owner Amos Calloway, to Robert Guilliame as prescient Doctor Bennett, no matter how big or how small the role it's obvious that each and every actor here gives everything to the part they play.

Big Fish is a bit hard to classify; it's basically a chick flick for men. Dealing with the father/son dynamic and yet plainly and unashamedly rich in emotion, this film will make some uncomfortable. As a woman, I have a tendency to appreciate more depth in the female roles of a film; the women of Big Fish are in general given short shrift, and yet I found it quite appropriate in this case. The central myth of Big Fish is the classic Hero's Journey, told from a male point of view, and as such the women are relegated to the Maiden, Mother, and Crone archetypes. In another film it would be a disappointment -- here, it works.

Filled with mythic imagery and metaphor, this is a film that will take on new nuances and give fresh insights with every viewing. I want to see it again and again, to catch what I missed the first time. While this film will not be to everyone's taste, at the risk of sounding arrogant, there will most likely be those who dislike it simply because it's beyond their intellectual capacity. This is a smart film, a wise film. I wasn't the only one who left the theater with tears streaming down my face, and my husband wasn't the only man wiping his eyes either. Big Fish illustrates the necessity of magic in our lives, and the fact that stories can be more true than facts, more clearly than any film in recent memory; see it, and see it more than once.

[Maria Nutick]

The official Big Fish Web site is located here.