In the hands of director Tim Burton, “Big Fish,” a comedy-drama about a son reconnecting with his father on his deathbed, is more fun than it has any right to be. This winning, whimsical yarn may be a bit sentimental at times, but it is also darkly funny and frequently magical.
Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is a teller of tales. Tall ones. Very tall ones—one features a 12-foot tall giant. His favorite story—and the one he’s most famous for—concerns the big fish of the title and, well, it’s best to see the film and hear Edward tell it. Perhaps the only person who does not enjoy Edward’s tales is his son William (Billy Crudup), who is so miffed by his father’s storytelling upstaging his wedding, the two men stop speaking to one another.
Yet when dad lies dying, William, returns home to Alabama for reconciliation. He is determined to find out what—if anything—his father ever told him was true.
The narrative structure of “Big Fish” may be a bit clichéd, but it sets up the fanciful stories that are so darned engaging the film’s creaky plot can be forgiven. What is more, the storyline gives Burton the opportunity to create a series of dazzling “flashbacks” that bring these tall tales to life. These episodes feature everything from a witch with a glass eye that foresees the viewer’s death, to the aforementioned giant, a shifty dwarf, Siamese twin showgirls, and other weird and wonderful characters. And the fantastic interactions Edward Bloom claims to have had with each and every one are the highlight of this immensely enjoyable picture.
Recounted by Finney, in a remarkable, Oscar-worthy performance, the flashback se-quences feature young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor, a good physical match for Finney) making his way through a life larger than most people’s. These scenes, which include trekking through a dangerous forest, participating in various circus acts, and experiencing treacherous weather, bank robberies, and other dangers are buoyed by Edward’s invincibility. As he explains to his son, once the glass-eyed witch shows him how he will die, Edward is pretty much immune to peril until that fateful moment.
“Big Fish” presents Edward’s tales in such a bewitching manner that audiences may be disappointed when the segments end and the “real” life takes the plot back to Edward’s strained relationship with William. But Burton does a fine job contrasting his imaginative set pieces with the mawkish story, even if the transitions are a bit clunky.
What really makes the film work is Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney’s magnetic performances. Their young and old Edwards are so likable that the film flags a bit whenever the story shifts away from them. McGregor and Finney are both immensely appealing and completely charming.
Alas, this does create a drawback as the more colorless characters are left stranded by the flimsy material. Billy Crudup is saddled with the thankless role of the doubting, earnest son, while Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman—who play the old and young versions of Edward’s devoted wife, respectively—are given little to do. None of these parts are plums, and while these characters are necessary to tell the story, the cast members are wasted. Jessica Lange, in particular, spends most of her on-screen time excusing herself from the room.
Yet there are several small parts that command attention. Danny DeVito as the scheming circus manager with a secret, Steve Buscemi, as a poet turned financier, and Helena Bonham-Carter, who plays multiple roles in the film, including the witch, are perfectly cast and very amusing. Burton, not necessarily an actor’s director, utilizes these performers quite well, and the script gives them all a little twist that makes them memorable.
Ultimately, “Big Fish” is a big crowd-pleaser. In addition to Burton’s spectacular visuals which are better seen than described, the film manages to earn a few tears by its clever ending. And that’s no tall tale.
Matthew McGrory and Ewan McGregor.