Big Fish is Tim Burton’s latest film, after a couple of disappointing movies, Planet of the Apes and Sleepy Hollow. Burton seemed like he was on autopilot for these two films, especially PotA, a formulaic star vehicle with no life at all. Sleepy Hollow had some interesting moments, but no third act and no structure.
Big Fish, however, reminds us why so many think so much of Tim Burton. Recalling Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish is a journey through the life of a dying man, as the stories are recalled by the son who feels he never knew him. The father’s stories are unbelievable, populated with ten-foot tall giants, lycanthropic circus owners and siamese twins. The son has never heard anything about his father except for these stories, and so tries to get his father to tell him the truth about his life. The movie is that search, as the son tries to find the real man behind the stories, or in the stories.
Everything about this movie is a pleasure. Ewan MacGregor is bursting with life and energy as the young father, the hero of all the stories who can never be stopped or deterred by any setback, who is loved by all. Billy Crudup is the adult son, exuding much of his father’s charm but detached by the relationship with his father, which is based on nothing but lies, as far as the son can tell. Helena Bonham Carter plays a few different roles, including a decrepit old witch who can show you your death in her glass eye and a young southern belle, and is stellar in both.
The way the movie moves you through the relationships and the stories is a work of art, wonderful to behold. You start out disliking the father, only thinking of him as a liar and a braggart, and as you start to see him in his stories, you see every spinner of every tall tale, with himself at the center of all of them, winning at everything, one-upping everyone, loved by all, accomplishing impossible feats and seeing impossible sights. As the stories progress, though, you really start to like the character, and you want the stories to be true. The way the son gradually comes to understand who his father really is, through the stories, is beautiful and complex in a way rarely attempted in movies these days, it seems.
There’s a little bit of totally unnecessary partial nudity, unfortunately. So watch out for that, although if you’re in the habit of going to movies much, it’s really quite mild. Still, I don’t know why it was even there- it was the only part of the movie that jarred me- that snapped me out of the cinematic reverie to think about the fact that I was watching a movie, and to think about the movie I was watching. Anytime I think about the movie I’m watching as a moive, while I’m watching it, that strikes me as a weakness in the movie. A really perfect movie will prompt you to think about and focus on the story, the characters, and the scenery, but not the movie, as a movie. And this was very nearly that.