Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 13, 2016)
For many years, I thought Tim Burton could do no wrong. For his first decade as a director, he produced one good to great movie after another.
Burtonís charms sagged by the late 90s and ever since then, heís created a series of largely uninspired efforts. At least one exception to this rule exists, though: 2003ía Big Fish, a charming fable that reminds us of Burtonís strengths.
Fish follows Edward Bloom (Albert Finney). Early on we learn that he loves to tell the same tall tales over and over, and this started to irritate his 30-ish son William (Billy Crudup) years earlier.
When Edward grabs the spotlight at Williamís wedding to Josephine (Marion Cotillard), this greatly bothers the son, and the pair effectively cease to communicate for years. They learn about each other through Edwardís wife and Williamís mother Sandra (Jessica Lange), but they have no direct interaction.
When Edwardís cancer worsens and he nears death, William and the heavily-pregnant Josephine fly back from their home in France so the son and father can hopefully reconcile. While the two try to come to terms before itís too late, the movie tells Edwardís life story via his tall tales, most of which feature himself as a younger man (Ewan McGregor). Through these stories, we get a mix of reality and fantasy and learn more about the man.
Most people seem to regard Fish as one of Burtonís more reality-based movie, and thatís probably true. The modern-day parts of Fish include virtually no fantasy, and since Edwardís fanciful stories clearly arenít meant to be taken literally, we donít have to stretch our understanding of truth to buy into them.
However, Fish walks the line between the literal and the whimsical and rarely makes it clear where to draw the distinction. That works in the filmís favor, as it doesnít allow us to buy into concise definitions of reality and fantasy.
Of course we know that time didnít really stand still when Edward saw Sandra, but Burton aptly allows us to understand the subjective nature of the memories. Does Edward believe his tall tales after all these years? Who knows and who cares? The movie lets us see the way that the two sides intermesh and become a personal form of reality.
And it does so in a highly entertaining way. The many flashback stories never threaten to wear out their welcome. Thatís largely because they present their own mini-movies.
Fish enjoys a wide variety of tales, most of which focus on different genres. Horror, comedy, action, and romance all co-exist inside this flick, and that keeps the different segments fresh and fun. Donít expect much historical reality Ė Edwardís wartime assignment will cause much head-scratching among buffs Ė but thatís not the point, so you need to just go with the flow.
Fish also benefits from a decided lack of melodrama. Back in the present day, the flick easily could have turned sappy and drippy as father and son hash out their issues. Happily, Burton delivers genuine emotion without sickly sentiment. At times the movie reminds me of Forrest Gump, but Fish comes without that movieís sugary nature and simplicity. The drama integrates well and feels like a necessary component, which allows the conclusion to pay off in a genuinely moving way.
In no way will I ever consider Big Fish to be my favorite Tim Burton movie, as I simply adore too many of his earlier flicks too much. However, it may well be his most consistent and mature film to date.
On one hand, Iím not 100 percent sure I want to see Burton take on more ďadultĒ topics, as I love his warped fantasies. However, given the lackluster nature of his last few efforts, I have to endorse his change of pace, and if he continues in this vein, I look forward to his future work.