Burton's next project after Planet
of the Apes couldn't have been
more different, even though it shared
the same producer (Richard
D. Zanuck). It was an adaptation
of "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic
Proportions", by Daniel
Wallace. Screenwriter John
August would make many changes to
the story, which would have been almost
impossible to make into a conventional
movie as written. The film had Steven
Spielberg attached as director for a
while, with Jack Nicholson playing the
When Burton came aboard, he realised
that casting suitable actors as the
older and younger versions of the main
characters was particularly important.
Burton recalls seeing a picture of Albert
Finney in Tom Jones (1963)
and thinking Ewan
McGregor would be a good choice
for the young version of his character.
The two actors were even featured in
a People Magazine “separated
at birth article”, which sealed
The film was shot on location in Alabama
and the production went smoothly despite
the occasional tornado and other bad
weather. Due to the vignette style structure,
each day was almost like making a new
film for the cast and crew. Big
Fish was touted before its release
as Burton's most serious and Oscar-worthy
The camera zooms into the torch on the
Columbia logo and then the film opens
on, not surprisingly, a big fish swimming
in the water. The main titles are less
elaborate than Burton's previous films
but effectively capture the film's Southern
tall tales flavour right from the start.
There are some nice visual touches,
such as the reflection of a skull in
a fishing lure (to reinforce the idea
that some believe the giant catfish
is the ghost of a man).
film flirts with confusion right from
the start by using three different narrator's
voices - young Edward Bloom, old Edward
and his son, Will. However, it manages
to switch almost seamlessly between
the different voices and the various
tales they are telling.
Will realises that not only does he
not see anything of himself in his father,
but the reverse is true as well. As
the credits finally end, the film cuts
from the elder Edward in his pool to
his younger incarnation trying to get
the ring out of the fish. He succeeds
and the fish swims away, just in time
for the main title to appear on the
Since this is a film about tall tales,
the structure is quite different from
Burton’s other films. You never
know when or where the story is going
to go next, which is part of the film’s
charm. The film cuts back and forth
between Ed’s fanciful exaggerations
and the naturalistic, real world scenes
featuring the older, dying Bloom and
his estranged son, but the contrast
is never jarring.
The storytelling begins in earnest with
his memorable birth (literally popping
out of his mother’s womb) and
childhood. Back in the present, Will
gets the call that his father is sick
and flies home from Paris with his wife.
On the plane, Will remembers being told
a story about an old witch who can show
people how they die in her glass eye.
This is how Edward learns the nature
of his death. The scene is classic Burton
- creepy and fun.
Once the tall tales focus on Ed as a
young man setting out to make a name
for himself in the world, the film picks
up steam and becomes more and more entertaining.
The segment where Ed becomes a small
town hero (winning every sport and even
rescuing a dog from a fire) is an amusing
montage and features a suburban scene
with lawnmowers all moving simultaneously
that is highly reminiscent of Edward
After an encounter with a giant and a trip
through the dark forest (where he faces
hat-stealing birds, bees and jumping
spiders) Ed finds himself in the sunny
town of Spectre.
Ed enters the town there's a reference
(1972) with the banjo boy from that
film (Billy Redden) playing a snippet
of "Dueling Banjos". Redden
had not appeared in any other films
since Deliverance, and was
reportedly quoted as saying about Burton
that, "He was a real nice guy,
a lot nicer than Burt Reynolds."
seems almost like Eden - a place where
everyone smiles and no one wears shoes.
The Mayor welcomes Ed, but tells him
that he wasn't supposed to arrive this
early. This segment is rich in symbolism,
and introduces the amusing recurring
character of Norther Winslow, a poet
who left Ashton many years before. Winslow
has been working on a poem for 12 years
and all he has is: "The grass so
green. Skies so blue. Spectre is really
Ed’s stay in paradise ends with
a hilarious scene where he is caught
up in a town dance and finds himself
twirled around by the insanely smiling
Mayor. Ed leaves, but promises the little girl Jenny
he will return one day.
are a few scenes where the dialogue
over explains things, such as when Ed
tells a story about having a dream that
his father was going to die and the
next day the milkman drops dead. The
final line "my momma was banging
the milkman" is unnecessary and
seems like it was put in for dim people
who didn't get the joke. However, the
few moments like this don't detract
too much from the film.
The most charming part of the film comes
when Ed tells Josephine the tale of
how he and Sandra met (when she asks
if it's a tall tale, he replies that
"it's not a short one"). After
Ed and his towering companion turn up
at a circus run by Amos Calloway, whose
acts include a high wire diving cat,
Karl quickly replaces the existing giant,
Colossus (who's not so colossal anymore).
It’s there that Ed first meets
Sandra, the girl destined to become
the love of his life, and time literally
stops. This is a delightful effect,
especially when Ed brushes floating
popcorn out of his path.
Ed eventually tracks Sandra down to her college and is devastated
when he learns she is already engaged
to Don Price, a jerk that Ed knows well
from Ashton. True to his character,
Ed doesn't give up and performs a dazzling
series of romantic gestures to win her
love. It would be hard for any women
not to be charmed by them, especially
when he plants a field of daffodils
turns up and proceeds to beat the crap
out of Ed for trying to steal his property.
Ed doesn't fight back because he has
promised Sandra he won't hurt Don, and
this act causes her to realise her true
feelings. She dumps Don now that he
has shown his true colours. Ed's bloody smile to Sandra
after being beaten up by her bullying
fiancé is surprisingly sweet.
Ed and Sandra are married, but the Korean
War soon separates the happy couple.
This leads to a funny sequence where
Ed accidentally parachutes into an enemy
camp that has put on a bizarre talent
show for the troops, including a ventriloquist
that is escorted off stage by armed
soldiers. Ed has to deal with kung fu
fighting soldiers before hatching an
escape plan with conjoined twin lounge
singers Ping and Jing, who share one
pair of legs.
However, Ed is gone so long he is declared
dead. A heartbroken Sandra has almost
got over her shock when Ed suddenly
steps through some drying sheets and arrives back in her arms. It's a very
The tall tales begin to thin out after
this, as the film focuses more on the
present day relationship between father
and son. In a touching scene, the older Ed lies in a bath
fully clothed because he was drying
out and Sandra joins him, still clearly
as much in love with him as ever.
Will does some investigating and discovers
a deed that proves the town of Spectre
was real. He visits the grown-up Jenny
there (who has become an eccentric lady
in a house full of cats) and asks her
if she had an affair with his father.
She in turn tells him the story of Ed's
second visit to Spectre, which was too
late this time.
Ed saves the twon, which has falen on hard times, and then leaves, never
to return. The legend says that Jenny
grew old and became the witch with the
glass eye. Will points out this is impossible,
as the witch was old when his father
was young, but Jenny explains that for
Ed there's only two kinds of women -
his wife, and everyone else.
This revelation further blurs the line
between reality and fantasy, and begins
Will’s reconciliation with his
father. When Will returns home he finds
out that his father has had a stroke
and been taken to hospital.
Will stays alone with his father and
when Ed wakes up, Will finally tells
a tall tale of his own at his father's
urging. In Ed’s dying moments,
his son reveals to him what was shown
in the witch’s eye. In the story,
Will sneaks Ed out of the hospital and
drives him to the river in his old red
charger (avoiding the damn church people
because they drive too slow).
Everyone is waiting there at the river,
even the milkman who supposedly fathered
Ed and then died. Sandra is in the river,
of course, and Will lays his father
in the water. Ed turns into what he
always was, a very big fish. It’s
a poetically beautiful final tale.
The story told, Ed dies in his hospital
bed a happy man. At his funeral, many
of the characters from his stories turn
up in their real life incarnations.
For example, Karl is there, but not
quite as tall as he was in Ed's tales,
and Ping and Jing are twins, but not
conjoined. It shows that the legend
was closer to reality than the skeptical
Will ever dreamed. Will carries on the
legend by telling the stories to his
own son. Finally, the big fish once
again jumps out of the water, bringing
the film to an emotional conclusion
that almost matches Edward Scissorhands.
The actors are as perfectly cast as
any in Burton’s previous films.
Ewan McGregor is more charming than
he’s ever been. He manages to
emulate Albert Finney at times, while still making the character
His Southern accent is pretty convincing,
Finney is also good as the older Bloom,
full of boisterousness and Southern
charm, though he's given less opportunity
to enthrall the audience than McGregor.
Crudup has a difficult role as the
son tired of his father’s flights
of fancy, but he underplays it well.
Like Ichabod Crane he is the voice of
reason, but his rational mind almost
makes him the villain in this film.
Lange is somewhat underused as the
older Sandra, but still gives a touching
Lohman is equally good as the younger
version of the character.
The characters the young Ed meets, from
giants to bank robbing poets to circus
folk to werewolves, are all fascinating
creations. Helena Bonham Carter follows
up her emotive chimp turn in Planet
of the Apes with her impressive
role(s). In fact, like Catwoman she
almost has three identities - young
Jenny, old Jenny and the Witch. Jenny
is also important as the first character
to come out of Ed's stories and show
the truth behind them. The makeup that
transforms Carter into an old witch
is impressive (Burton clearly likes putting
his partners in heavy makeup).
As the werewolf Amos Calloway, Danny DeVito is as
flamboyantly entertaining as in his
other parts for Burton, though his butt
shot is probably more than anyone ever
wished to see of the actor. Deep
Roy makes his second appearance
in a Burton film (and unlike in Apes,
he gets to show his face) as Mr. Soggybottom.
Buscemi is great as always in the
role of Norther Winslow. His character
goes through more changes than perhaps
anyone else, from his funny attempts
at poetry, to a bumbling bank robbery
scene that reminded me of Mr. Pink from Reservoir
Dogs (1992), to his final Wall Street
incarnation. Even when he has no dialogue
(such as when he appears at Ed's funeral)
Buscemi uses his body language to bring
out his character's enthusiasm, accidentally
hitting Josephine while he is excitedly
telling a story about Ed.
All of the actors in the minor roles
turn in good performances as well. Musician Loudon
Wainwright III is fun as the mayor
of Spectre. Adai Tai and Arlene Tai,
who had small roles in Ed Wood,
play sisters Ping and Jing. The effects
used to create the conjoined twins are
a bit obviously fake, though they are cleverly
shot to look like one person when we
first see them.
Some might find
the casting of the late Matthew
McGrory as Karl the giant exploitative,
but his charm and deep voice make the
character more than an oversized freak.
Turning the 7 foot 8 inch McGrory into
a 12 foot giant used a combination of
platforms, miniatures, forced perspective
and some digital tweaking.
Burton shows new depth as a director,
especially in the "real world"
scenes. These quiet family scenes are
the most down to earth in the director's
career, but unlike the more "normal"
scenes in films like Batman and Planet of the Apes they
don't feel perfunctory and boring.
The skipping between fantasy and reality
is seamless, the large cast is well
directed and the final scenes are executed
beautifully to bring out the full emotion
of the film.
The Southern location work gives the
film a different feel from most of Burton's
other films, which are usually stage
bound. Indeed, aside from one week in
Paris all the location work was shot
in the state of Alabama.
The visual effects are used sparingly
to compliment the story. Stan Winston
studios, which had previously worked
on Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, also did the
practical effects for this, creating
many animatronic animals. The big fish,
created through animatronics and CGI,
is fairly believable, though some may
have expected it to be bigger (like
the catfish Homer once caught on The
Danny Elfman’s score is subtly
effective. The score mostly fades into
the background for the first half of
the film, but rises to an emotional
crescendo by the end. The soundtrack
also makes good use of classic oldies,
as well as a new song by Pearl Jam,
"Man of the Hour", that plays
over the end credits.
Like the book it was based on, Big
Fish is rich with themes. Most
prominent is the theme of fathers reconnecting
with their sons, which was especially
important to Burton after his own estranged
relationship with his father. Typically,
Burton would downplay this reading,
saying that the film had as much to
do with the Son
of Godzilla (1967) as his own feelings
about his father. As a father, Edward
Bloom owes much to other screen dads
like Homer Simpson, who doesn't do any
baby duties like nappy changing and
is uncomfortable even hearing about
The film also examines how truth becomes
legend, and the power of storytelling.
By the final scenes it's clear that
there was some truth in Edward's stories
and that he just exaggerated things
to make them more interesting. Edward
Bloom creates his own legend and, as
the final line of the film says, "In
that way he becomes immortal".
The film also continues the theme in
Burton's films of the gentle hero winning
the girl away from a bullying boyfriend/fiancé
(previously seen in Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow). In the
book, Edward fights back against
Don and has an affair with Jenny, which
would have taken away some of the romantic
appeal of the film.
The film has many other changes from
the book, most of them improvements.
Characters such as Norther Winslow are
expanded, and Edward Bloom has a clearer
journey. One interesting element from
the book that was dropped was the vision of Spectre
(which in the book is actually a different,
unnamed town from the one Ed later buys)
as a kind of purgatory, with a Cerberus-like
dog biting off the fingers of anyone
who tries to escape. In the film Spectre
is more of an Eden, yet it is also a
trap for Ed that he narrowly avoids.
The film was criticised by some for
ignoring issues such as segregation
in the old South - Dr. Bennett (Robert Guillaume) would
not have been allowed to deliver a white
woman’s baby in real life - but
that was rather missing the point. The
film is a fantasy. Edward Bloom wasn't
a racist, so racism didn't exist in
his idealised view of the past.
Burton's third film about a guy named Ed was arguably his
most accomplished and personal film
in almost a decade. Although some reviewers
claimed the film as a departure for
Burton, it still has all his trademark
touches. It combines the freewheeling
fun of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with the emotional resonance of Edward
Scissorhands. In fact "Edward’s
Big Adventure" wouldn’t be
a bad alternate title. It was also Burton’s
funniest film in a while - it's hard
not to have an almost constant smile
on your face from the wit and visual
invention of the tales.
Big Fish is a truly magical
film that has all the best elements
of Burton’s classics, while also
showcasing a new maturity as a filmmaker.
It’s not perfect, and some people
may lose patience with the relaxed tone
of the film, but if you go with the
flow it’s impossible not to be
both entertained and moved by it.
Perhaps the theme of a man trying to
reconnect with his dying father resulted
in this being Burton's most personal
and emotional film in years, and it
earned respectable reviews and box office,
even if it didn’t get the Oscar
attention it deserved. Despite all of
the buzz, in the end it was only nominated
for best score (Elfman's first nomination
for a Burton film). It earned almost
$70 million in the U.S. and while the
producers may have hoped for more success,
it's one film that will clearly gain
its following as time passes.
2005, Burton directed back-to-back movies
for the first time. The first of these
projects was another movie based on
a novel, and would arguably be Burton's
most kid-orientated film since Pee-Wee's
CHAPTER: PLANET OF THE APES
CHAPTER: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY