[box cover]

Big Fish

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Danny DeVito,
and Jessica Lange

Written by John August
Directed by Tim Burton

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

"Here in Hollywood, you have to describe [a film] in a couple of sentences or it's not going to get made. So it was nice to work on a movie where that's the whole point — you can't describe it, put it into a real hard category. Things aren't just black and white. Some things are both real and unreal at the same time."

— Tim Burton

Art may not always imitate life, but some of the very best art is directly inspired by it. Author Daniel Wallace's novel Big Fish, about a man coming to terms with the tall tales told by his fabulist dad, came from Wallace's ruminations on his relationships with his flamboyant father and with his own young son. Screenwriter John August found himself drawn to the novel because the father/son relationship, he says, reminded him strongly of his own family dynamics. And director Tim Burton took a shine to August's script because he was going through a journey of self-discovery following the death of his own father, doing a lot of thinking about the relationships between fathers and sons ("It was an opportunity to explore that without, you know, therapy," he explains on the DVD's commentary track.)

Pondering real-life relationships doesn't necessarily lead to good filmmaking — Kevin Smith, for example, credits his own explorations regarding fatherhood as inspiration for Jersey Girl — but in this case all three men involved in the process of taking the story from page to screen had not just a personal stake in the telling of the tale but shared a unique understanding of the message and the characters involved. The result is a funny, strange and deeply touching story of one man's amazing life — and the poignant journey of his skeptical son, who tries to find out how much of that story is really true so he can, hopefully, know and understand his father while he still has the chance.

Returning home to Alabama from France, William Bloom (Billy Crudup) has an awkward relationship with his dying father, a charming traveling salesman. Edward (Albert Finney) is a bigger-than-life character given to wildly improbable tales — the sort of charismatic storyteller who naturally draws all of the attention in the room, even at his own son's wedding reception. William, a writer, is long past tired of his dad's whoppers and hasn't spoken to him in three years, communicating with him through his mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange). But with Edward's cancer rapidly progressing, William realizes that he has only a short window of time left in which to really get to know a man who he feels has fictionalized his entire life story — he wants the truth behind the tales, so William returns to his dad's bedside with his very pregnant wife (Marion Cotillard) and attempts to unravel the mystery.

Of his father's life, "the best I can do is tell it to you the way he told me," William says in voice-over. "It doesn't always make sense, and most of it never happened. But that's what kind of story this is." As a young adolescent experiencing a growth spurt of Bunyanesque proportions — requiring him to stay in bed, he recalls, for three years while hooked up to an elaborate wheel-and-pulley contraption — Edward reads about the phenomenon of goldfish growing to the size of their bowls. It's then that he realizes that he's a big fish in his quiet southern town. "After all," he reasons. "A giant man can't have an ordinary-sized life." Seen through flashback and memory, young Edward (Ewan McGregor) has an extraordinary series of adventures — starting out as a small-town sports hero and volunteer fireman, then encountering a giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory) and joining a traveling circus run by an ever-so-slightly sinister ringmaster (Danny DeVito). Edward meets, woos and wins the love of his life, Sandra (played in flashback by Alison Lohman), encounters the residents of an eerily comforting hamlet called Spectre, gets an early peek at his own death by gazing into the milky eye of the town witch (Helena Bonham Carter), goes to war and escapes capture behind enemy lines with the help of beautiful conjoined twins, and has an epic battle with an enormous fish. The telling of these tales is pure Burton, beautifully rendered — with the assistance of production designer Dennis Gassner, responsible for the beauty of such disparate films as Field of Dreams, Barton Fink, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, plus the amazing cinematography of Philippe Rousselot — and redolent with surreal charm.

As delightful as the picture's deliciously Burtonesque whimsy may be, offering a rich tapestry of stylized circuses, spooky woods, and Americana-with-an-edge, it's the portion of the film grounded in reality that gives Big Fish both weight and maturity. Crudup is effective as a man who's chosen to take the opposite path as his father in an almost deliberate attempt to prove himself nothing like him — he may be a teller of tales (William is, after all, a writer), but he's a stickler for truth, withdrawn where Edward is bombastic, laconic where his father is verbose. As a salesman, Edward was gone a lot, leaving William-the-child to feel abandoned — with his father recounting his life as preposterous, unbelievable stories, William feels that he's never really known the man and he resents it. As William's mother, Sandra, Jessica Lange is quietly amazing — she really has little to do in the film, but merely by casting the luminescent actress in the role Burton establishes her importance in William's life. And the way she gazes with such love and tolerance at the crotchety, tale-spinning Finney tells a complex story of its own — Sandra has always loved and accepted Edward completely, in a way that William has never been able, and that love is profound.

It's a delicate balancing act, cutting back and forth between reality and legend, past and present, but Burton finesses it beautifully. Big Fish is the director's most fully realized film, in which he plays gleefully in the world he knows best — the odd, highly stylized alternate universe of Beetlejuice, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and Edward Scissorhands — but frames it with such maturity and sensitivity that the result is a richly textured, utterly "grown-up" film. Between the deliriously surreal flashbacks with the beguiling McGregor (this and his turn in Down With Love establish him as one of cinema's most effortlessly winning actors) and the complex duel of wills between Finney and Crudup in the modern-day scenes, an irresistible spell is cast. As William comes to terms with his father's view of the world — learning not just that there's a kernel of truth in all of Edward's stories, but also that truth may not be any more "real" than a well-told fiction — one can't help but surrender to Big Fish's deeply sentimental, but never mawkish, core. By the time Burton's poignant, Felliniesque coda wraps up his tall tale, the enchantment has been fully realized — there's a sense of wonder here, as well as a deep understanding of the complicated nature of familial relationships, and a heart as huge as a giant.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar's special edition DVD of Big Fish offers a rich, colorful anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The flashback scenes featuring young Edward are exceptionally saturated — the green grass of Spectre jumps off the screen, as does DeVito's red ringmaster jacket and the rich blue of the skies. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is superb, showcasing Danny Elfman's complex, imaginative score and offering some occasional audio surprises, like the loud "boom" of the circus cannon and the deep echo of Karl's voice when he first emerges from his cave.

There's a solid collection of extras on board, starting with a commentary track with director Tim Burton. Prompted by a very British interviewer whose name is completely incomprehensible when he offers it (it sounds something like "Maxwell Spriggan von Burton-on-Burton"), the director — whose previous DVD commentaries have suffered from rambling tangents and long silences — provides an extraordinarily interesting play-by-play for the film. From casting decisions to script adaptation to special effects, virtually every aspect is covered here in enthusiastic detail. Burton shares his delight over the "suicidal cat" — found during auditions for actual circus acts — who leaps from a high platform at the start of the first Big Top scene, describes DeVito's character as "sort of a combination between Fellini and porn star Ron Jeremy," and reveals that the fellow in Spectre who plays a few notes of "Dueling Banjos" as Edward enters the town is actually the same guy who played the banjo in Deliverance, tracked down and delivered to the Alabama location by Burton's assistant director. This is an excellent commentary, sure to please fans of the film and of Burton.

The Characters' Journey menu offers three featurettes, including Edward Bloom at Large (8:45), with clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews all focused on the younger version of the character (of his role in Big Fish, McGregor grins, "Really, I'm just one hell of a guy in it!"), plus footage from an elaborate scene that never made it into the film featuring McGregor wrestling a pig into a tutu, then running, falling, and stumbling through a series of carnival booths. There's also Amos at the Circus (4:30), which covers DeVito's character, offering some charming behind-the-scenes looks at the circus scenes, and Fathers and Sons (7:00), which features interviews with Crudup, Lange and Burton about the dynamics of the relationship between William and Edward.

Under The Filmmakers Path, we find Tim Burton: Storyteller (6:45), with lots of background on casting, shooting and scoring the film. A Fairytale World (9:30) is a look at the production design of the film, illustrating how perfectly Burton's sensibility lends itself to a movie about tall tales. But the best of the bunch is Creature Features (6:30), a fascinating — and far too short — featurette on the effects created for the movie. Preferring to use "real" effects instead of CGI wherever possible, Stan Winston and his crew designed and built a number of puppets and robotic effects for the film, including a "swimming" snake, an elaborate, full-sized wolf puppet (dubbed "the hellhound"), and a special suit covered with crawling spiders for McGregor's journey through the forest. Oddly, Winston only appears to offer two brief sentences at the end of the feature, and he's not identified. Rounding it out is The Author's Journey (8:00), which gives Daniel Wallace and John August a chance to discuss writing the story and adapting it to the screen.

There's also Fish Tales, an optional branching feature that allows the viewer to jump to one of the featurettes when prompted during the film, The Finer Points, a Tim Burton trivia quiz, and an Easter egg on the main menu page, offering a clip of Burton driving a fireworks-shooting golf cart down the main street of Spectre, plus theatrical trailers for Big Fish and other Columbia TriStar releases.

— Dawn Taylor

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