I suppose Tim Burton is someone who can easily divide opinion, with films as diverse as Peewee’s Big Adventure (1985) (seriously underrated in my opinion), Ed Wood (1994) and practically anything with Johnny Depp in that isn’t Pirates… or Donnie Brasco (1997). His films have a certain warm, fairytale atmosphere about them that contrives to hide some really well thought-out stories. Big Fish (2003) works very well, because the subject of the film is all about stories, the magic of listening to your father tell tales of his exploits, and – ultimately – what is truth.
A film does not need to be depressing to be moving, nor does it need to be grainily shot to convey a specific feeling. Inured to emotion as I am having sat through a hundred mawkish or just plain depressing movies, I am pleased to report there was a happy tear in my eye at the end of this quite lovely little film.
The premise is actually not one of deep joy. Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) is living quite well in France with his lovely, heavily pregnant wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard in her first US feature). He gets a phone call to say that his father is unwell and probably hasn’t long left to live. He is forced, therefore, to revisit the father he finds very hard to communicate with and to try to make some sense of what makes him tick – and why he tells such outlandish tales.
Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) was not around much when Will was growing up, as his job as a salesman took him out on the road a lot. With Ewen McGregor playing the young Ed Bloom, the fantastic and unlikely story of his life is told and retold to whoever will listen. Will is fed up with the deceit and the fantasy, and wants to know the real man before he dies. Is it really worth knowing who your father really is? Wouldn’t you just be disappointed that he wasn’t the towering giant-killing jack-of-all-trades of your youth? These are the questions Big Fish asks. The answers, as in life, may just surprise you.
Big Fish is for me the quintessential Burton. An amalgamation, if you like, of everything that came before and a springboard for those films that came after. He seems to have nailed the camera and set dressing down to a fine art. I could show you a few stills, play you a snatch of Danny Elfman’s score and tell you that it also stars Helena Bonham-Carter and there would be no cash prize for telling me it was Burton. The colours are vivid to the point of hyper-reality, the characters unashamedly quirky and unusual and the dialogue flits between spartan and prosaic.
Why does Big Fish make such an impact? Probably because it’s a bloody good yarn, much like the subject matter itself. Everyone likes a story, some like to listen and some like to tell, and this is the heart of this shameless tall tale. While this is not as much a fantasy movie as, say The Princess Bride (1987), the very essence of it is the importance of storytelling and the retention of that child-like wonder – the same wonder that Burton explored in Edward Scissorhands (1990) – albeit in a more cloying and gothic manner. Hardly anyone tells a good story these days (insert your own joke about politicians here) so it’s good to come across someone who obviously loves it.
It’s a story-in-a-story about stories, told by a passionate storyteller. I hope that clears things up for you. Just watch it – it’s great.