“Tim Burton is getting old”. Er, no. Oh, there’s a certain maturity not quite common in Burton’s previous work, and you could say this is more mainstream than what the Gothic chic filmmaker has used us to. Yet you’d have to stick your head pretty far up your ass not to notice all the pure Burton touches, even though “Big Fish” isn’t one of his most distinctive films. It’s rather heavy-handed, underlining every idea and emotion. Like, instead of letting us interpret the title, it explains it 6-7 times. Then you’ve got this father-son dynamic which we’ve seen countless times and, while Albert Finney and Billy Crudup make the most of it, only in the last ten minutes does it become truly moving.
Before that, the film swings back and forth between the “real” world, where Edward Bloom is dying of cancer, and the magical world of the tall tales he’s been telling his whole life. The stories are obviously more interesting than the “real” material, but even those flights of whimsy are uneven.
Ed Bloom catching a big fish = cute. His slippery birth, sudden growth and athletic prowess = amusing. The taming of a giant = neat. A visit to the mysterious town of Sceptre, a creepy-soothing microcosm of barefoot people, apple pie and square dances = now we’re talking! Then there’s some circus stuff (with Danny De Vito as ringleader) that’s colorful if inconsequential, but we also get an unforgettable moment: “When you first see the person with whom you’ll spend the rest of your life, time stops.”
The young Edward Bloom is played by Ewan McGregor and who better to convey this kind of innocence, enthusiasm and grand romantic gestures! His wife has the looks of Alison Lohman then of Jessica Lange, and both are absolutely lovable. The screenplay fails to develop these characters beyond general traits, but the actors manage to make them feel whole.
Back to the stories, we also get a great one featuring the hilarious Steve Buscemi as a poet turned bank robber and another that has Bloom parachuting into a Communist military party and escaping with conjoined twins performers. There’s also a tale that takes us back to Sceptre and brings closure to that story more or less satisfyingly, despite the welcomed presence of Helena Bonham Carter.
And then there’s the finale, a sure-to-make-you-cry scene that, at last, manages to truly fuse fact and fiction, tall tales and hard truths. Too bad the bulk of the film isn’t that effective. “Big Fish” is definitely entertaining and well crafted, and there are a few killer moments, but not as many a one would hope for. Still, warts and all, this shows us a Tim Burton who remains an original.