Perhaps someone pulled Tim Burton aside last year and hinted to him that he was floundering, that his most recent films -- Planet of the Apes and Sleepy Hollow -- were just too grim; that the one before that -- Mars Attacks! -- was too silly. Or maybe Burton realized on his own that some of his best work came out of trying to enchant his audiences -- as in Edward Scissorhands -- not overwhelm them. Then again, he just might have been overwhelmed himself after reading Daniel Wallace's fantasy novel Big Fish, about a rocky father-son relationship and how it's smoothed over via the power of storytelling.
The resulting film version appears, early on, to be the most accessible, most "normal" film Burton has made. But it doesn't take long for him to weave in the fantastical, magical edges that transport it comfortably into the realms of Burtondom.
Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is a master storyteller, usually of complicated, many-tiered tales about himself. He spins them, then hones them, then tells them ad infinitum, often to the same people, and has been doing this for as long as his son William (Billy Crudup) can remember. When a new person comes around -- for instance, William's bride-to-be, Josephine (Marion Cotillard) -- the stories start anew, much to the displeasure of William, who has heard them too many times, doesn't believe them, and who, finally, just stops his relationship with his father. He and Josephine head off to Paris, where, ironically, he makes a living writing news stories -- just the facts, not any high-falutin' tall tales.
But when Dad is diagnosed with a terminal disease, William, who's about to become a father, comes back home. He hopes finally to find the real man inside, wants to break through the veneer of stories about one-eyed witches (Helena Bonham Carter, yet again looking totally unglamorous); small-town circuses; short, even-tempered werewolves; and Shangri-La-like towns in order to know what really makes this distant man who calls himself his father tick.
Through a swirling series of flashbacks, regularly mixed with returns to the present, he finds out many truths, and learns finally that maybe it's not so bad when legends end up becoming those truths.
Young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor, bright-eyed and ever smiling) is filled with spirit, an excellent high school sportsman, a hometown hero (the kind who saves dogs from fires), with more ambition than the rest of his town put together. He's out to make his mark in the world, beginning his journey by ridding the town of a huge creature that's eating all of the livestock. The creature turns out to be a gentle but hungry giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory, who actually stands at 7'10", but is photographed at angles that make him look 12 feet tall). The two men become pals and leave town together on roads to adventure.
Or so goes the story told by the elder Edward.
Another one is about how Edward met and won over his loving wife Sandra (Jessica Lange in the present; Alison Lohman, looking remarkably like Lange, in the flashbacks), and involves such Burtonesque scenes as a massive field of daffodils and a moment where time literally stops, then has to catch up with itself.
As the past and present interweave, a bit more is revealed about personalities. Is that a wink and a nod coming from the incorrigible older Edward? Is there some semblance of an understanding of the human condition in the gaze of the hopeful younger Edward? Is there a hint of a coming to terms between father and son because the son finally gets what the father is all about?
Wrapped all around this is the always amazing detail of Burton's production design, from the odd little town called Spectre -- look carefully at the actor playing "Dueling Banjos," Billy Redden, the same man seen doing it in Deliverance 30 years ago -- to the creepy woods filled with "jumping spiders," to the manicured suburbs and the dreamy underwater sequences. Yet Burton constantly keeps his characters up front, filling the screen with close-ups of their expressive faces (and at one comical point, the bare backside of Danny DeVito).
The story is really about the power of love -- and love at first sight -- just as much as it's about the difficulties of holding a family together and understanding how distant memories change throughout the years, sometimes obscuring the real story, sometimes making it even better than it was. And, oh yes, it's also about a big fish, in more ways than one.
The bittersweet ending may elicit tears, but at the same time spreads a comfortable feeling of warmth over audiences.