An adventure as big as life itself.
Big Fish started its life as Daniel Wallace’s novel, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions. It’s a light book, both in tone and in size (my copy is only 180 pages). In it, a young man long estranged from his enigmatic father, tries to peel back the tall tales his father has told him about his early life and find the real man behind his self-created myth. It’s both funny and poignant, grounded in reality yet oddly magical. In other words, it’s the perfect material for a Tim Burton movie.
All his life, William Bloom (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) has hated his father’s stories. As Edward’s (Albert Finney, Miller’s Crossing) yarns thrilled everyone around him, William saw through the tall tales, never believing a word of them. Years go by without the two speaking, until Edward is on his deathbed. William, along with his wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard, A Very Long Engagement), come to be with Edward in his final days. Josephine, having never heard her father-in-law’s stories, becomes the catalyst to show us his early days. As a young man (played in the flashbacks by Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge), Edward was a sports hero, confronter of giants, carnival worker, war hero, traveling salesman, and bank robber. He romanced his wife-to-be (Alison Lohman, Matchstick Men) with millions of daffodils. He parachuted behind enemy lines during the Korean War and enlisted the aid of Siamese twins to return home. He visited a mysterious town with perpetually happy residents, then later purchased the entire town after its innocence had been destroyed. And he caught an uncatchable catfish thought to be the incarnation of a terrible bank robber, only to let it go free. In his own eyes, he was legendary.
I can think of few other film directors who have as loyal a fanbase as Tim Burton. Very few filmgoers — and I’m talking the teeming hordes who make films like Van Helsing #1 at the box office, not you fine folks — notice who directs a film, let alone set out to see a film based on any person responsible for its making. But then there’s directors who are known by everyone — even the teeming hordes — for the quality of their films. I’m talking people like James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg…and Tim Burton. But while they may be popular and all, in terms of box office numbers (according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, all the aforementioned directors, and four others, outrank Burton in terms of box office clout), I don’t see many loyal fans of any of them. (In fact, the only other one I can think of with a fanbase at all is #111 on the list, Kevin Smith.)
But there’s been a problem with Tim Burton: He’s slipping. It all started with Mars Attacks! in 1996. Despite its all-star cast and expensive special effects, it was a colossal flop in the U.S. (even though, sniff, it’s my favorite of his movies). He took a few years off from filmmaking, or so it would seem: He spent several years working on a new Superman film, which never flew. (It’s still in development at this writing, though far removed from the project Burton would’ve made.) Rather than developing a new project from scratch, he took the reins of a project that was currently in development, and the result was 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. On the one hand, it feels like a Burton project, what with its spooky atmosphere, quirky gadgets, and Johnny Depp. On the other hand, it still has the pall of being a director-for-hire project — after all, his fans appreciate the uniqueness of films like Edward Scissorhands. And then came the worst misstep of all: Planet of the Apes. Remakes…err, I mean, reimaginings…are dicey propositions anyway, and remakes of well-known films are bound to fail, and remakes of well-known films that are rewritten on the set and meander and have confusing endings are destined for the dustbin of obscurity — not a good place for a film by the #8 top-grossing director of all time, and the only director in the top ten with a loyal fanbase. And then came Big Fish. Ironically enough, it was originally going to be directed by the #1 on that top-grossing director list, Steven Spielberg, but when he moved on to other projects, Columbia brought in Tim Burton.
I’m torn what to say about Big Fish. Like any Tim Burton film, I look at it through the lenses of my rabid appreciation of his films. And when compared to the rest of his oeuvre, it’s…different. It feels the least like a Tim Burton film of any Tim Burton film ever made. Gone are the visual hallmarks of his films, like black-and-white stripes or swirling patterns. Gone is the outsider theme (see my review of Ed Wood for details). Mostly gone is the quirky sense of humor. This is the least Burtonesque film he’s ever made and the most — dare I say it? — mainstream.
But is that a bad thing? No, not really. In a way, it’s like when Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List. Here was a director known for his arrested development, making fun, exciting, child’s eye looks at the world like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park. Then he made a serious, deeply personal look at one of the world’s worst tragedies. It came out of left field — who knew Spielberg had it in him to make a film like that? Even when compared to his other serious films, it was a remarkable step forward as an artist. Likewise, Tim Burton moved beyond the confines of his characteristic style and made a deeply personal film, even if it was developed from someone else’s material. It’s the logical extension of the disconnect between father and son that you find in Edward Scissorhands, and echoes Burton’s loss of his own parents in the past few years; his father died in 2000, his mother in 2002. There’s a little of Burton in both Edward and William — the storyteller on one hand, the son who doesn’t understand his father on the other. Burton the Storyteller is well known; there’s a little of how he sees himself — the misfit outsider — in most of his protagonists. But Burton the Son has been nearly absent…though perhaps not. In all his films, the Outsider longs for the acceptance of the normal people — Edward wanted to please the Inventor and his surrogate suburban parents — but rejects their value of normalcy to be what they see themselves as. In Big Fish, Burton wants show that the two aren’t all that different, and that they can reconcile and find their common ground — the common ground that perhaps he never found.
Does it sound like I’m contradicting myself — that I’m saying Big Fish is everything like, yet nothing like, your typical Tim Burton film? Because, really, that’s the point I’m trying to make. It’s like Picasso painting “Girl Before a Mirror,” then painting a more traditionally beautiful rendition of a young woman regarding herself in a mirror. Big Fish may not look like what you traditionally think of as a Burton film, but it’s because the artifice has been stripped away to reveal the true heart of the artist. And for that, I think it’s one of his finest films. It is touching, romantic, funny, and poignant; it’s marvelously acted, beautifully shot, and has a story and characters that most anyone can embrace. It’s very nearly the perfect movie.
Columbia (now going by their corporate owner’s moniker, Sony) presents Big Fish in its original aspect, 1.85:1. The image is a bit disappointing — it’s a bit soft, and has a digital, over-compressed look. This is particularly noticeable in the first twenty minutes — if you look at a bitrate graph, there’s a pronounced increase in the bitrate once the flashbacks take over the film. At least they didn’t compensate for the softness with edge enhancement, which is largely absent (though does appear from time to time). Color is just fine, which is important in such a vibrant film. Audio is a fine Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which does justice to Danny Elfman’s eloquent score.
Extras are headlined by an excellent commentary track. Tim Burton’s early commentary tracks (particularly the ones he recorded solo) showed off his trademark ineloquence. He has improved over time, particularly when he’s had people to bounce off of. Columbia hit the motherlode with this track. They pair him up with Mark Salisbury, the author of Burton on Burton, which is essentially a transcript of an interview with Burton. Salisbury acts as a moderator for this track, sussing interesting details out of Burton not only about Big Fish directly, but about how it fits into his oeuvre and what the story means to him. It’s highly interesting, one of the best tracks I’ve heard.
Two series of featurettes are included. “The Character’s Journey” presents looks at Edward Bloom, Amos (the ringleader at the circus, played by Burton “regular” Danny DeVito), and William Bloom. “The Filmmaker’s Path” presents looks at Tim Burton, Stan Winston (who did the makeup and animatronics; he also worked with Burton on Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns), and Daniel Wallace and John August (book author and screenwriter, respectively). The featurettes are relatively short and are pretty standard fare — talking heads, clips, and some on-set footage.
Rounding out the extras are a Tim Burton trivia quiz (very unchallenging for Burton aficionados) and trailers for Big Fish and other Sony titles. Note that some of these trailers are forced upon disc entry — shame on them — though you can press your menu key or fast-forward to skip them.
Besides being a wonderful film and a fine entry to the Tim Burton catalog, Big Fish will likely remind you of a storyteller in your own life. It reminds me of my father, who when I was growing up would often regale me and my friends with stories from his own life. Sure, they weren’t as fantastic as Edward Bloom’s stories, but I loved hearing about his days in the Army or meeting famous folks at the Los Angeles area country club where he was a chef. Sure, after a few tellings of how he chased turtles in Texas lakes or how he nearly shot his commanding officer, I grew a little weary of hearing the same tales. And yet, I can’t wait until my son (who is currently two years old) is old enough to hear his Papa’s stories…and I’ll get to hear them again too.