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"A heartwarming, nostalgic story of tall tales and even taller dreams."
"It's beautiful in the way it looks, but more importantly, it's beautiful in the way it resonates."
"It's really the message of the film that makes this film so good."
Big Fish  

Cast

Young Edward: Ewan McGregor
Old Edward: Albert Finney
William Bloom: Billy Crudup
Sandra Bloom: Jessica Lange
Young Sandra: Alison Lohman
Jenny/Witch: Helena Bonham Carter
Norther Winslow: Steve Buscemi
Amos: Danny DeVito
Review December 2003

Edward Bloom was the most extraordinary man in all of Ashland, Alabama. At least, so he would have you believe. Says his son, William: "In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate the fact from the fiction." There are stories about falling in love, stories about the circus, and stories about magical creatures, places, and events. Detailing the triumphs and failures of fatherhood, "Big Fish" is told through the eyes of William Bloom, the son of Edward, who visits his father on his deathbed to say good bye and separate the man from the myth. It's based on Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace and directed by renowned auteur, Tim Burton, known for his dark and unconventional takes on such works as "Batman" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." But surprisingly, "Big Fish" is not dark and twisted. It's the exact opposite - a heartwarming, nostalgic story of tall tales and even taller dreams.

Listening to the same anecdote over and over again can get quite repetitive and boring. Just ask William Bloom, who has heard the same tall tale of his father's birth in embarrassing fashion, told by his father to friends and strangers alike. The story, like most of his father's stories, obscures the reality that Edward was never around when William was growing up, off mysteriously for months on end. In an attempt to reunite father and son one last time, William's mother Sandra invites her son and his wife over to settle their differences. Ironically, while William and his wife are expecting their first child, Edward is deteriorating in poor health. As Edward clings to his magical tales of life and death, love and destiny, William grows impatient, demanding to know the truth about his father before it's too late.

But instead of answering William's questions truthfully, Edward elaborates with fantasy and whim. Conclusively, William decides to pay homage to his father, reconstructing his father's memory in a way that would make him proud. He tells the story of his father's birth and how he left Ashton; the tale of Karl the giant, a large man with an even larger appetite; Spectre - the town from which you can never leave; the witch whose glass eye told the future; a circus where he meets his first great love; and the tale of the elusive catfish, the size of a whale. All of the stories have elements of fact and fiction. And through them all, William is able to say one final farewell to the man he never thought he knew.

"Big Fish" is an absolutely beautiful film. It's beautiful in the way it looks, but more importantly, it's beautiful in the way it resonates. And it's hard not to think of this film and what it tries to convey without getting teary eyed. Adapted from the Wallace work by John August, an up and comer whose past credits include "Charlie's Angels" and "Titan A.E.," the film toggles back and forth between a cold and honest reality and a warm and whimsical past. Despite a great foundation, credit has to go to August for making the transitions fluid and meaningful. Though the tendency is to remain fixated on the fantasy, August brings us back to present at the right times while setting up the next big tale. In fact, the only time I got distracted was toward the end when William decides to go see the real witch and get the real story. But by then, the mundane part of the film became blatantly obvious. It was exactly what Edward tried to avoid himself.

When dealing with fairy tales and mythical elements, I don't think there is anyone who does it better than Tim Burton. "A Nightmare before Christmas," "Sleepy Hollow," and the most fascinating, "Edward Scissorhands" were all trademark Burton films, replete with moments of gothic creepiness, fanciful magic, and the touch of human sentiment. Burton's eccentricity and vision were a perfect match for this story because it embraces the art of storytelling. It's not enough to just tell a story chronologically, it has to be boisterous and bold, with imagination being the most important key. Visualizing the exotic and larger than life stories, Burton, along with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and art director Richard Johnson, create a rich and inventive world in which a giant can find his purpose, an abandoned town can be restored, and an uncatchable fish can be caught. They make it so easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole that they even add a magical and mysterious ambience from long time collaborator and composer, Danny Elfman.

Both young and old Edward Blooms are cast to perfection in "Big Fish." Ewan McGregor is delightful as the spry young entrepreneur with a world to conquer. Says McGregor's Bloom: "You may not know me, but I have more determination than any man you're likely to meet." And we believe him because his confidence comes across as amiable rather than obnoxious and his charisma makes you believe that he could probably sell igloos to Eskimos. Cast as the older Bloom, in yet another spectacular supporting role ("Erin Brockovich"), is Albert Finney. Finney's southern drawl and throaty grovel make him more enigmatic and endearing, not to mention more fishlike. But you have to pay careful attention to what he says because you realize those words may be his last. Helping sift through his father's fiction is Billy Crudup, who does a wonderful job in the straight role, demonstrating skepticism and determination. And it was even a real pleasure to see both Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi in quirky roles so aptly suited to their idiosyncrasies.

Yet, with all the positive tangibles, I was a little dismayed to see so many of my fellow critics react so indifferently to this film. Have they lost their sensitivity? Can they not see the forest from the trees? The telling of such a tale is no easy task, particularly since Daniel Wallace's novel juggles between reality and illusion, between past and present. And the book itself has Edward Bloom passing away as many as four separate times only to be reincarnated in a different fable. But the film never sidetracks or confuses. No, it eloquently ties all of his exploits together sequentially, like one giant fairy tale. And although it makes good use of special effects and Tim Burton's unique imagination, it's really the message of the film that makes this film so good. In the end, you realize the message is much larger than the film - cherishing positive memories of loved ones and the realization that an embellished story not only is more entertaining than its counterpart; it's more inspiring.

"In telling the story of my father's life, it doesn't always make sense. But that's what kind of story this is." So says William in relaying the story of his father's life in "Big Fish," a beautifully poignant story about life and death, memories and moments, dreams and aspirations. And he's right. In real life, things don't always make sense and oftentimes, the inexplicable happens. Capturing the dreamlike fish story is Tim Burton, who has created his best work yet - a touching, sentimental drama with a lot of heart. A film that may have mass appeal. The fact that Edward Bloom used his stories to mask the mundane elements of his real life only lends credibility to his shortcomings as a father. And you can't blame him for wanting his son to think differently of him. Because in the end, that's all that really mattered.



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