It was <- thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis -> big!
Planet of the Apes. Oh dear. "Bring me the spaceman!" yelled Tim Roth, looking about as scary as...well, a man dressed as a monkey really. Why everyone's favourite purveyor of dark whimsy, Tim Burton, decided to touch that particular project with anyone's proverbial pole is beyond most of us to this day. Return to the fold, however, Sir Knight, as the fishmonger-friendly titled Big Fish flaps it's flippers and flies, rather than flounders, firmly up-stream in a frenzy of fairy-tale fantasy. And that's an "A" for alliteration right there...
Yes, Burton is back in familiar fable (stop it!) territory for this critical comeback that sees the director returning to that which he understands best; the twisted realm of dark fantasy. Only to be fair, Big Fish is far less tinged with malevolence than his usual fare, a fact which it's kiddie-friendly PG certificate belies, though there are still enough eerie goings-on to keep the fans happy. A seemingly simple tale of reconciliation between a terminally ill father and his estranged son, the movie sees a typically on-form Albert Finney playing the older Edward Bloom whilst Billy Crudup fills the role of thirty-something Will.
Having suffered a lifetime of his father's larger-than-life and frankly downright preposterous stories (giant catfish swallowing wedding rings and twenty-foot giants roaming the countryside), Will finally vents his anger at Edward on his wedding night, sparking a three-year period of radio silence between father and son. When Edward's cancer becomes terminal, however, Will returns home to reconcile their differences as his father lies on his death bed.
At this point we leave reality as we know it and crash-land in Burtonworld as Edward recounts the story of his life, from childhood encounter with the local Witch to meeting his wife and the birth of his son, encapsulating along the way a bizarre travelling circus, a Korean siamese twin cabaret act, the forgotten time-warp town of Spectre, Alabama and of course the aforementioned giant. Hey, just another day at the office, right? Cutting back to contemporary reality every so often, the movie juxtaposes Edward's decidedly larger than life tale of his past with his son's gradual acceptance that sometimes fantasy is preferable to reality.
It comes as little surprise that the young Bloom finally accepts the notion that the stories maketh the man, but the joy of Big Fish is not only to be found in the touching interaction between Finney and Crudup. As you would expect, Burton seems most obviously at home in the land of make-believe, and it's here that his directorial talents are given the fullest rein. Commanding a fine, almost comic performance from an Alabama drawl-sporting Ewan McGregor as the younger Edward, Burton's love of the fantastical is presented more vividly than ever before whilst consummately maintaining a fine balance between whimsy and menace.
Calling in some fine support from the likes of Danny DeVito, Steve Buscemi, Alison Lohman, Jessica Lange and (least surprisingly) current real-life squeeze Helena Bonham Carter, Burton is as assured behind the lens as he's ever been, utilising a blend of traditional optical and modern CG effects to render his most subtle yet perhaps effective vision yet. Like some kerrrayzeee alternate reality, the world of Edward's imagination is as far-fetched as you like, yet retains something of a familiarity that renders the viewer trapped in some mad limbo betwixt here and there, wherever "there" might be.
For all the romanticism of Burton's imagination however, it's the touching human aspect of the protagonist's relationship that ultimately tugs at the heart strings, and blow me down if Big Fish doesn't deliver as genuinely touching an ending as you are likely to see all year, without ever resorting to cheesy histrionics. That such a series of tall tales can come together and give one a genuine appreciation and affection for a character rather than sheer loathing speaks volumes in favour of Burton, screenwriter John August (adapting from Daniel Wallace's novel) and in particular the consummate Mr. Finney.
Undoubtedly there will be the usual crowd of Burton nay-sayers who refuse to indulge in such ultimately childish sentimentality, and indeed this reviewer may once have counted himself amongst them, but to experience Big Fish is to enjoy a film the likes of which one feared they really did not make any more. I absolutely hate seafood, me, but magical in texture, dreamlike in taste, this is one fish that's sure got sole.
My apologies; I had to get a crass pun in some plaice...
Disko awards this film 4 out of 5 Wakadoos
Albert Finney (Senior Edward Bloom)
Billy Crudup (Will Bloom)
Jessica Lange (Senior Sandra Bloom)
Alison Lohman (Young Sandra Bloom)
Helena Bonham Carter (Senior Jenny / The Witch)
Matthew McGrory (Karl)
Danny De Vito (Amos Calloway)
Steve Buscemi (Norther Winslow)