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Big Fish
cast: Billy Crudup, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Ewan McGregor, and Marion Cotillard

director: Tim Burton

110 minutes (PG-13) 2003
Columbia Tristar NTSC VHS retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
Renowned genre director Tim Burton's latest opus, Big Fish represents a pleasantly surprising development in his distinctive aesthetic - quirky, weird, gothic-like, dark moods exemplified by the noted productions: Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Mars Attacks (1996), Sleepy Hollow, and more. Big Fish, a fable adroitly adapting David Wallace's novel, maintains the signature eccentricity leavened by a lighter tone and steeped in contemporary Southern USA magic realism celebrating the joys and values of storytelling.

The film's plot concerns estranged, grown, journalist son, William Bloom (Billy Crudup), for three years incommunicado with his retired, travelling salesman father Edward (Albert Finney). When news reaches him that terminal cancer will soon end his old man's life, William flies from Paris with his wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard), home to small town Alabama, to reconcile with and get the truth from his parent.

Edward never told a plain anecdote in his life, charming all he met, especially his spouse Sandy (Jessica Lange), with his eloquently delivered tall tales in true Southern tradition. Embellished with fanciful, outlandish contents, Edward's stretchings of plain facts, exasperated William most of his life, eventually to the point of complete separation from the source. While trying to fathom his father, William learns big fish stories have value, containing truths transcending mere hard data. The picture's interesting structure cuts from the framing narrative about William's efforts to understand his father's worldview to interludes dramatising Edward's youthful life from his yarns' warped, surreal perspectives.

Big Fish dazzles when Edward's spiels get played out on the screen, with the youthful subject convincingly portrayed by Ewan McGregor doing a Southern accent with skill equal to Albert Finney's. Delightful scenes show Edward, a free-spirited young man (contrasting nicely with his waning, weary, elderly self): facing down and even befriending a witch and later her daughter (both played by Helena Bonham Carter); discovering a pastoral village paradise of voluntary shoeless folk; confronting, then bonding with Karl the giant (Matthew McGrory); parachuting behind enemy lines during the Korean War; doing odd jobs for a circus run by a werewolf (Danny De Vito) where conjoined Asian twins (Ada and Arlene Tai) perform a unique singing act; and successfully luring to his hands, the biggest catfish ever seen in these down home parts. Not to mention a depiction of Edward's remarkable birth overseen by African-American family physician Dr Bennett (Robert Guillaume in a cameo role).


Although William's impatience with his father's outrageous utterings is understandable, their absurdity makes them magical and vastly entertaining expressions about relishing life as endless enchantment and finding adventure in every situation. How the overarching narrative plays out, painlessly elucidates sub-textually that relationships thrive on tolerance, acceptance, patience and trust.

The film's fabulations get realised mostly through basic, old-time visual effects using bare minimal CGI, giving the whole a nostalgic appeal. Lovely locations; superb cinematography by Philippe Rousselot; excellent sets and costumes; fine acting to portray engaging, eccentric characters; and a superb score by Tim Burton's favourite composer Danny Elfman - all combine to make Big Fish a treat. The poignancy of the dying older Edward and the joy of his stories communicates layers of meaning about valuing parent-offspring interactions, appreciating that certain truths may be revealed in the midst of whimsy, and the importance of celebrating life to counterbalance mourning death.

The film's intertwined scenarios beautifully illustrate Big Fish's exemplification of the American Southern yarn spinning tradition with its fanciful embellishments of the mundane, bringing a sense of wonder to everyday life. Tim Burton's cinematic version of Daniel Wallace's novel proves that literature can be translated effectively from the page to the screen given the right creative approach. Big Fish sparkles with ingenuity, wit and charm and is definitely one to catch!
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