(Originally posted on 12/16/03)
After the visually inventive but dreary Sleepy Hollow and the across-the-board awful Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returns to more familiar quirky territory with Big Fish, an ebullient tall tale about the magic of imagination and the power of myth. Edward Bloom (Albert Finney in the present; Ewan McGregor in flashbacks) is a gregarious old man whose penchant for telling fantastic stories about his youthful exploits has alienated him from his frustrated, uptight son William (Billy Crudup). Brought back home by news that his father doesn't have long to live, William doggedly attempts to separate legend -- Edward's apparent exploits include wrestling a giant fish on the day of William's birth, befriending an ambitious giant and a famous poet (Steve Buscemi), and capturing the heart of his wife (Jessica Lange in the present; Alison Lohman in the past) by decorating an Auburn University quad with blanket of daffodils -- from reality. John August's heartfelt screenplay (based on Daniel Wallace's novel) affords Burton the opportunity to recreate the pastel, plasticized 1950s-ish suburbia of Edward Scissorhands and the creepy tangled forests of Sleepy Hollow, but the film's abundant visual imagination never overwhelms what is essentially a Spielbergian tale of the love between a father and son.
Edward freely embellishes his stories with extravagant exaggerations, and William, who is about to become a father himself, is frustrated that his dad refuses to deal in facts. The flourishes Edward lavishes upon his fairy tales, however, not only reflect this cagey storyteller's personality but, more importantly, allow him to convey the spirit of his experiences. In this sense, Edward's stories provide a perfect metaphor for the cinema itself. Films are stories -- be they exciting, touching, outrageous, or frightening -- that reflect our hopes and dreams, and Big Fish wonderfully evokes the way in which our fanciful myths tell us fundamental truths about ourselves. Even though many of the film's amazing narrative detours struck me as charming but surprisingly ordinary, I found myself wholly won over by Lange and Lohman (who are equally superb as the object of Edward's undying affection) and by William's transcendent eleventh-hour revelation. The colorfully jubilant climactic reunion -- which pays homage to the conclusion of Burton's own Pee Wee's Big Adventure (itself an homage to 8 1/2) -- is built to manipulate audiences' tear ducts, but its hard not to be moonstruck by the finale's rousing emotional authenticity. Big Fish's corny sincerity may make it the squarest movie of the year. Fortunately, those same qualities also help make Burton's magical realism opus one of 2003's finest.