Directed by: Tim Burton
Premise: Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace. A man expecting the birth of his first child visits his ailing father (Albert Finney) who has spent his life telling tall tales. The film recounts the father’s tales and the son tries to parse out fact from myth.
What Works: Tim Burton is a filmmaker who has established himself as an auteur, meaning that he has a distinct filmmaking style. Just looking at a scene or even a still image from one of his films is usually enough to identify it as Burton’s work. His films were, and to an extent largely still are, novelties in the filmmaking marketplace. Burton’s features combined populist filmmaking with a singular artistic style, characterized by his art direction and unique characters. Yet, Burton’s work has inspired such a following because it also possessed a humanity that made for memorable stories and characters. Burton’s more recent films like Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows have lost that human touch but one of his great pictures and one of his most unusual was 2003’s Big Fish. Part of what is great and exceptional about this film is how it is unlike virtually any of Burton’s other features, at least stylistically. Big Fish is a fantasy movie but it is not marred by the overindulgences of a lot of contemporary fantasy pictures. Despite being a movie about tall tales there is a naturalism and a restraint about it that gives the film a humanistic charm. The characters of Big Fish are kept in proportion to the scale of the rest of the story and as strange as some of the sequences may get they remain teathered to reality because they are based less on creating elaborate special effects and more on creating an interesting space for the actors to play their parts. There are a number of interesting characters in Big Fish, mostly the unique people that the father encounters in his tales. But the central character of Big Fish is the father himself, played in the present by Albert Finney and in his tales by Ewan McGreggor. Finney’s character is a flesh and blood man whereas McGreggor is a fantasy but both performances synch to make the film fit together. Finney has a charm that makes his stories engaging and McGreggor plays the fantasy with a straightforwardness that gives credibility to the fantasy. These two performances and the two parts of this film in which they take place have an undeniable disparity but instead of disrupting the story that space creates an engaging mystery at the center of the film. Great stories often possess an ethereal quality that touches on some larger mystery about human life. In Big Fish a man tries to understand who his father was, at first trying to see through the tall tales and piece together the facts. What the film reveals is that the facts are not always the road to understanding, especially in storytelling, and the movie is a fascinating examination of the stories we tell about ourselves and what those stories reveal about who we are and who we wish we were.
What Doesn’t: On first glance, Big Fish is barely recognizable as a Tim Burton film. It’s missing the gothic and macabre subjects and settings of movies like Batman and Corpse Bride nor does it have Burton’s recognizable art direction and cinematic style as seen in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. A closer look at the filmmaking and the themes of Big Fish reveal this film to be more consistent with Burton’s other work than it first appears; in many respects this is a meta-fiction of the function of fantasy and tall tales with Burton both exploring and defending the kinds of movies that he’s made. Nevertheless, Big Fish is so different from Tim Burton’s other films that fans of his work will probably be taken by surprise, maybe to the point of being put off by how non-Burton this picture can be.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featureetes, and a trivia quiz.
Bottom Line: Big Fish is a terrific film and certainly one of Tim Burton’s best pictures. It has the love of fantasy that defined Burton’s other movies but this film also has a maturity and a sophistication that distinguishes it from the director’s other work.
Episode: #495 (June 15, 2014)