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BIG FISH (2003)

Tim 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 main character.

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 deal.

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 film yet.

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).

The 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 screen.

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 Scissorhands.

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.

As Ed enters the town there's a reference to Deliverance (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."

Spectre 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 great".

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.

There 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 for her.

Don 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 touching scene.


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 own. His Southern accent is pretty convincing, too.

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. Billy 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.

Jessica Lange is somewhat underused as the older Sandra, but still gives a touching performance. Alison 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.

Steve 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 Simpsons).

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 it.

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.

In 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 Big Adventure.

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