- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Two years after a big-budget remake of “Planet of the Apes,” a commercial hit but a creative disappointment, director Tim Burton has chosen well. The slender magical-realist novel on which “Big Fish” is based was, in a sense, already a Tim Burton movie.

“Big Fish” is a blend of fairy-tale whimsy, Southern gothic and psychedelic freak show.

If the author, Daniel Wallace, didn’t have exactly these sumptuous visualizations in mind when he wrote the book, I’d bet he’s still thrilled with Mr. Burton’s head-tiltingly surrealist creations and the brilliant cast that inhabits them.

At its core, though, “Big Fish” is a very old and very human story, of an estranged son seeing his father to death’s door.

Edward Bloom, played with powerful resignation by the great Albert Finney when we first glimpse him, is a charming raconteur beloved by all except his son Will (“Almost Famous’” Billy Crudup, so clean-shaven and well-groomed you’ll barely recognize him).

The son has tired of the father’s tall tales. Where others, like Edward’s tolerant and loving wife Sandra (Jessica Lange), see the jowly old man’s stories of witchy oracles, friendly giants, circus stunts and ever-growing fish that cough up wedding bands as harmless embellishments, Will has long since given up on the entertaining bedtime stories that once dazzled him to sleep as a boy.

For Will, the tall tales — woefully inadequate compensation for the many absent hours his father spent as a traveling salesman — obscure who Edward Bloom really was, and is. Will’s is the disillusionment of a son who has stopped looking at his father as a figure to admire and emulate.

So for years Will cut off all contact with his father and, to add literal distance to their relationship, moved to Paris. For a career he chose journalism — the perfect professional antidote.

Will-the-skeptic must become Will-the-son again after Sandra calls with news: Edward is dying of cancer. With his beautiful French wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) several months pregnant, he leaves Paris for home, a small town in Alabama. The friction between those two poles — sophisticated Europe and bucolic America — is what gives “Big Fish” its highest pitch of poignancy.

On the surface “Fish” is about the power of storytelling; beneath the surface, it’s about nothing less than the mythology of America, dreamed of by the father and fulfilled by the son.

The movie is so iffy on this point — possibly because of John August’s screenplay but more likely because Mr. Burton is almost too good at turning Edward’s yarns into gleaming set pieces — that I’m afraid it will be overlooked.

Young Edward (a happy-go-lucky Ewan McGregor) is smart, ambitious and almost recklessly romantic. In the guise of Mr. Finney, bed-bound Edward recounts how he rescued his hometown from a voracious giant (Matthew McGrory, who is north of 7 feet in real life) and became a “big fish in a little pond.”

Unsatisfied, he lights out of the “little pond,” braving a creepy forest; resisting the tempting simplicity of Specter, an Alabamian Shangri-La where Main Street is a broad lawn; becoming an indentured servant to a tent-show circus run by one Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito); taking a bloody beating for the girl of his dreams (Alison Lohman, smartly cast as the young Jessica Lange) in a field of yellow daffodils; escaping the clutches of the Japanese in World War II with the help of a pair of conjoined Korean sisters.

Throughout the wandering, Edward has foreknowledge of exactly how he’ll die, thanks, he says, to the auguring glass eye of an old hag (Helena Bonham Carter) whom he confronted as a boy.

Does Edward cut from whole cloth, or is there a germ of truth in each of his tales? The more interesting question is, Why does Edward tell stories?

The answer is the stories themselves. Back in the present, Edward babbles to Josephine about a mysterious French dialect spoken in the Congo. When Will informs his father that Josephine, an accomplished photojournalist, has actually been to the Congo, watch the look that briefly crosses the great Albert Finney’s face. It is a look that speaks volumes about missed opportunity, unfulfillment and, yes, a measure of envy.

When “Big Fish” swells to its tear-jerking conclusion, it insists that, in life, the literal size of a fish truly is in the eye of the catcher. What matters is the size of its heart.

***1/2

TITLE: “Big Fish”

RATING: PG-13 (Fight scene; sensuality; images of nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Tim Burton. Produced by Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks and Richard D. Zanuck. Screenplay by John August, based on Daniel Wallace’s novel “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions.” Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Original music by Danny Elfman.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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