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Staff Pick

Big Fish Is Tim Burton’s Love Letter to the Power of Storytelling

By Nick Nadel

It’s filled with tall tales, but this touching fantasy feels 100 percent genuine.

With cult classic films like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, Tim Burton became the big screen’s poet laureate of the strange and unusual. Alongside his many fanciful blockbusters, Burton has delivered some stellar dramas (Ed Wood) that prove the filmmaker can handle subtle character moments just as well as he does flashy visual spectacle. With Big Fish, Burton found the perfect vehicle for his signature mix of eye-popping imagery and lump-in-your-throat emotion.

Following a run of movies (Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, etc.) that successfully built the “Tim Burton” aesthetic, the filmmaker decided to send Mark Wahlberg to the Planet of the Apes. (It didn’t go well.) Looking for a something to tackle next, Burton was drawn to screenwriter John August’s adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions after Steven Spielberg exited the project. Still grieving the deaths of both of his parents, Burton connected to the story of Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), an ailing father whose colorful tall tales cause tension in his relationship with his son Will (Billy Crudup).

As played by Ewan McGregor, the young Edward Bloom is a classic Burton-ian outsider who refuses to settle for an average life. He chafes at the restrictions of his humble hometown, just as Burton did as a budding young artist drawing pictures and making stop-motion animated films in the suburbs of Burbank, California. While Big Fish is filled with witches, giants and other wondrous creatures, it’s Will who becomes the film’s antagonist in his reluctance to accept his father for the vivid storyteller that he is. Like the townspeople who shun Edward Scissorhands or the Deetz parents who fail to see the ghosts in their own home in Beetlejuice, Will is the voice of conformity that seeks to stifle the creative weirdo who lives outside the boundaries of polite society.

The adventures with which the elder Edward regales Will and his wife Joséphine (Marion Cotillard, in her first Hollywood role) allow Burton to fill the screen with some of his favorite things — circus folk, small towns that hide strangeness beneath their wholesome facades and the always hilarious Danny DeVito, who turns up as a ringmaster with a particularly hairy secret. (Burton regulars Helena Bonham Carter and Deep Roy also shine in supporting roles.) Big Fish is rife with the sort of romantic whimsy the filmmaker excels at. When Edward first sees Sandra (played by Alison Lohman in the past; Jessica Lange in the present), time freezes and he must brush away floating popcorn to try to reach her. As classic Burton moments go, it’s up there with Winona Ryder dancing in the snow in Edward Scissorhands.

The mix of comedy, fantasy and family drama in Big Fish is a welcome reminder that the Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Mars Attack director has a knack for absurdism. Edward’s interactions with the shiny happy townspeople of Spectre (wonderfully played by Steve Buscemi, Loudon Wainwright III and Missi Pyle) and his rip-roaring adventure in the Korean War contain some of Burton’s finest visual gags (Edward sitting down for pie with the eerily upbeat Spectre folks is particularly amusing.)

Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and topped off with an Oscar-nominated score by Danny Elfman, Big Fish is a Southern Gothic delight with a whopper of an ending that requires a whole case of tissues. With Burton’s films becoming increasingly reliant on CGI-created worlds, it’s refreshing to rediscover one of the filmmaker’s cinematic gems that’s a treat for both the eye and the heart.