Dir: Tim Burton. US. 2003. 125mins
In many ways the perfect vehicle for tall-storyteller Tim Burton, Big Fish is a gently whimsical tale of a man's reconciliation with his dying father and his acceptance of his lifelong penchant for fabulism. Filled with the quirky fables and magical fantasy with which Burton is associated, the film is also the director's most sentimental piece to date. Largely devoid of the hard edges and mordant strains which made Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas so distinctive, it repositions him as a mainstream film-maker embracing adult themes, a transition which could disappoint his legions of fans.
Being launched by Columbia Pictures as a major awards contender, Big Fish and its big cast will certainly attract adult audiences in their droves and its tear-jerking ending will have many viewers of both genders sobbing. Others will be irked by the big-hearted sentiment. Critics likewise will be divided.
In box office terms, it is unlikely to hit a nerve a la Forrest Gump, settling down somewhere in the $50m-$70m (domestic) region scored by other colourful magic-realist narratives like The Cider House Rules ($57.5m), The Royal Tenenbaums ($52.4m) and Chocolat ($71.3m). Overseas, the names of Burton and McGregor will help position Big Fish, but its uniquely American flavour will hinder its chances of surpassing domestic in international.
The film is scripted by John August from Daniel Wallace's novel, and was at once, appropriately, being developed as a directorial vehicle for Steven Spielberg.
The Big Fish of the title is Edward Bloom, a larger-than-life Alabama salesman (Finney) whose fanciful stories of his life have irked his son Will (Crudup) to the point where after his wedding to a Frenchwoman called Josephine (Cotillard) in Paris, Will breaks off ties with him.
After three years of no communication with his father, Will's mother Sandra (Lange) contacts him to inform him that Edward is dying of cancer and that he should return to Alabama. Will and Josephine duly arrive home, and there, much to Will's annoyance, Josephine starts listening to Edward's stories about the travelling adventures of his youth.
According to Edward, he was an extraordinary, ambitious young man (as played by McGregor) who longed to leave the small town where he lived and make it in the big city. His stories on the road involved a haggard old witch, a misunderstood giant, a ghost town called Specter, a circus ringmaster who is a werewolf by night, conjoined Korean lounge singers and a big fish which nobody can catch.
When Edward meets Sandra (Lohman), he woos her with fields of daffodils and, when he discovers that the ghost town Specter is going to ruin, he buys it and restores it to former glory.
Finally Will realises that Edward's stories may be embellished but that they contain more truth than he always believed and that they are simply ways of remembering intended to inspire and not deceive. In the final moments of Edward's life, Will finally understands his father and tells him a story about how he will die surrounded by all who love him.
At the heart of Big Fish is Albert Finney, whose magnificent bed-ridden performance as the elder Edward is as grand and touching as the character itself. Of all the cast, he is likely to be singled out for awards recognition, although McGregor and Crudup acquit themselves admirably in his shadow, and there are some sweet cameos from DeVito, Bonham Carter and Buscemi which add quirks to the Odyssey-like narrative. Visually, of course, the film is stunning courtesy of Burton's always striking perspective, the cinematography of Philippe Rousselet, the production design of Dennis Gassner and the effects by Sony Pictures Imageworks.
Prod cos: Jinks/Cohen Company, Zanuck Company
US dist: Columbia Pictures
Int'l dist: Columbia TriStar
Exec prod: Arne L Schmidt
Prods: Richard D Zanuck, Bruce Cohen & Dan Jinks
Scr: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace
DoP: Philippe Rousselet
Prod des: Dennis Gassner
Ed: Chris Lebenzon
Music: Danny Elfman
Main cast: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito