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Dustin Putman

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Big Fish (2003)
3 Stars

Directed by Tim Burton
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Marion Cotillard, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Robert Guillaume, Matthew McGrory, David Denman, Hailey Anne Nelson, Missi Pyle, Loudon Wainwright III, Ada Tai, Arlene Tai, Deep Roy, Grayson Stone
2003 – 110 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for mild violence and brief images of nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 27, 2003.

For Tim Burton (1988's "Beetlejuice," 1990's "Edward Scissorhands"), one of the most distinctively visionary filmmakers of modern times, "Big Fish" comes as something of a departure for him. While it retains Burton's signature look and style, it is set within the confines of the real world. Where its more fantastical elements come in is through the embellished stories Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) tells of his own life. As such, "Big Fish" is a marvel of bewitching storytelling that smoothly interweaves a reality-based present with a more fantasy-oriented past. Its only disappointment is that the undeniable imagination brought to Ed's tall tales isn't pushed even further.

When word comes that his father, Ed, has suffered a stroke and is without much time to live, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) returns to his hometown to offer support to his mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange). Will has been estranged from his father for several years, something he believes stems from Ed's tendency to tell alleged lies rather than speak the truth about his feelings. As Will gets up the courage to make amends with his dad, Ed's extraordinary stories about his past come to the forefront.

As a young man, Ed (Ewan McGregor) instantly fell in love with Sandra the moment he saw her at a circus. He also encountered a peculiar town where no one who visited ever left; a good-hearted giant; a witch (Helena Bonham Carter) who became something of his guardian angel; Siamese twins with only two legs; a mermaid; a short-lived stint in World War II; and a very big fish.

Written with care and intimacy by John August (2000's "Charlie's Angels"), one suspects while watching "Big Fish" that it may be Tim Burton's most personal film to date. It is not his best (although it is a major step up from 2001's "Planet of the Apes"), but there is a truth to what Burton has to say here that cannot be denied. Everyone has elder family members who are constantly telling the stories of their past, so much that you begin to wonder what is and isn't true. Minor exaggerations aside, Burton's central pondering is what if these supposed fabrications were, in fact, real? After all, fact is often stranger than fiction.

The elongated flashbacks are its best segments, a veritable treasure trove of unusual and always creative sights and ideas. Ewan McGregor (2003's "Down with Love") is so endearing and good-natured as the younger Ed Bloom that he very easily acts as the viewer's guide through his life. The enchanting production design by Dennis Gassner (2002's "Road to Perdition") also plays a major role, vibrantly bringing to life the various settings, from a dark, threatening forest, to a traveling circus (with a very funny Danny DeVito as the ringleader), to the Mayberry-like town where everyone is happy and nobody wishes to step outside of. So exquisitely rendered are these interludes that it's a shame there aren't even more of them.

The present-day scenes are less developed and so rooted in reality that they naturally pale in comparison. The troubled father-son bond between Ed and Will finds satisfying emotional closure by the end, but the pivotal romance between Ed and Sandra doesn't quite hold the weight that it deserved. As the younger Sandra, Alison Lohman (2003's "Matchstick Men") is underused, but appropriately angelic. She is also a highly convincing as the young counterpart of Jessica Lange (1999's "Titus"), who is given a couple, but not enough, quietly touching moments. Albert Finney (2000's "Traffic"), as the elder Ed, and Billy Crudup (2000's "Almost Famous"), as adult son Will, do a good job of fulfilling their role requirements, but not much more.

"Big Fish" is a big-screen entertainment that has its extraordinary quirks and offbeat elements, but features accessible themes that wide audiences will be able to relate to and get involved in. And along with the end of "Edward Scissorhands," the final scenes of "Big Fish" rank as the most powerful and accomplished that Tim Burton has ever filmed. They are simply beautiful, not only aesthetically but also humanistically, elevating a good picture up to the ranks of being a very, very good one. "Big Fish" has heart and it has originality, but its greatest attribute of all is its pure honesty.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman