- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

NEW YORK — The knock on director Tim Burton throughout his haphazardly dazzling career is that as a storyteller, he paints a great picture. Think of “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands” or “Sleepy Hollow.” Images, only images, come to mind, not well-tooled plots or character nuance.

Now, Mr. Burton wants to melt our hearts with the tale of an unrepentant storyteller on his deathbed.

“Big Fish’s” blowhard of a lead figure, played by Albert Finney, does nothing but tell tall tales to his increasingly frustrated son (Billy Crudup). Those interlocking yarns make up the bulk of the film, an emotional father-and-son saga spiked with another deft turn by Ewan McGregor, as Mr. Finney’s younger self.

Mr. Burton, wearing glasses as spectacular as something the late superagent Irving “Swifty” Lazar might have donned, has heard the criticism before about his narrative negligence.

“I always thought that was funny… Maybe I should go into the interior-decorating business,” Mr. Burton says, a snarky bite to his words as he addressed a group of reporters to promote “Big Fish.”

The director came of age with 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” a carnival ride disguised as a film that gave his man-child star a canvas for his quirky talents. The same could be said of Mr. Burton, who used the film to forge a distinct identity in Hollywood, the bankable eccentric. Even his misfires, such as 2001’s lethargic “Planet of the Apes” remake, proved profitable.

With “Big Fish,” he appears to be seeking imaginative stimulus in more grown-up themes. The film moves with a pace alien to blockbusters, taking its time as the narrative elements chug into place.

Physically, the director, 45, appears ready for a creative rebirth. His Cure/Robert Smith-style locks are flecked with gray, as is his stubble. He also just became a father, with actress girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter (who co-stars in “Fish”).

He says simply that “Big Fish’s” themes struck a chord within him.

Mr. Burton wasn’t close with his own father, who enjoyed a brief fling with professional baseball before an injury steered him into a career in parks and recreation in Burbank, Calif.

The elder Burton died a year before “Fish” began filming, but his impact on the project is something the director won’t deny.

“When he was gone, it brought up all those things,” he says. “Even if you have a bad relationship, it’s a part of who you are.”

Mr. Burton even recalls his father teasing the neighborhood boys with his peculiar dentition.

“My father was quite magical,” he remembers. “He lost his front teeth… When the full moon came out, he turned into the Wolfman. Kids would get freaked out.”

Mr. Burton’s current stop in Adultville could be temporary. His next assignment, re-imagining Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” for a new generation, returns him to familiar ground.

With children’s books, says Mr. Burton, who previously turned Mr. Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” into a stop-motion feature, “there can be darkness and foreboding and sinister things that are a part of childhood.”

Just don’t expect him to genuflect at the altar of 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

“Have you seen it lately?” he asks when questioned how he might improve upon a film confection cherished by millions.

“I don’t wanna crush people’s childhood dreams, but I’d rate ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ much higher than that,” he says, leaning back arrogantly in his chair. “It’s sappy when it shouldn’t be sappy… It’s not my personal favorite.”

Mr. Burton often gestures as he speaks, sometimes with a considerable flourish. It’s not hard to imagine him careening around the set as described by “Big Fish’s” Steve Buscemi and Danny DeVito in a separate interview.

Mr. Buscemi says it’s the director’s ballyhooed visual flair that often helps keep actors in character.

“To me, just the wardrobe he and the costume designer came up with, that just helps me as an actor, stepping onto the set and seeing the detail,” Mr. Buscemi says.

Mr. DeVito, who has worked with the director on three projects, is used to Mr. Burton’s preparations. For “Big Fish,” he says, Mr. Burton’s aims are much higher.

“It has all the whimsy and all the magic and all the inventive things Tim is known for, but he also brings us to an emotional space,” Mr. DeVito says.

Most directors wouldn’t be surprised by such praise. For a man whose biggest film victories came courtesy of bats, scarred antiheroes and a nasal-voiced manboy, it’s the kind of feedback that might presage a professional Act II.

“The hardest thing to do sometimes is be simple and let the emotion come through,” Mr. Burton says.

Nobody ever said “painterly” had to mean “merely decorative.”

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