A man is dying. He's a southern gentleman who has been telling his life
story in colorful elaboration as long as his son Will (Billy Crudup)
remembers. As the son grew up, hearing the stories ad nauseum, he began to
suspect that his father's stories were about as fact-based as the one about
Santa Claus. His father is a fabulist who can enthrall an audience, but he
wants his father to trust him enough to tell the truth before he dies so that
he can know who he really is. But has he been telling lies? Are his stories
exaggerations in the interest of self-aggrandizement? Fish tales? Or, did
the wondrous events he describes really happen, as farfetched as that seems?
Is he really the "Big Fish"? Director Tim Burton would like to leave you
Scripted by screenwriter John August ("Charlie's Angels") in dual time
sequences, we see the young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) and young Sandra
Bloom (Alison Lohman) in flashbacks, while in current time Edward (Albert
Finney) and Sandy (Jessica Lange) are well ahead in life. In Edward's case,
he's living out his last days.
This is not coming as a surprise since, as the gutsiest of his boyhood
friends, he had the audacity (and courage) to knock on the fearsome witch's
door and peer into her magic eyeball. This tells the viewer exactly how his
life will end, a vision that gives Bloom the courage to live without fear and
to test his mortality whenever it becomes necessary to do so. Thus the stage
is set for exploits that might seem unbelievable. Or, is that
just the groundwork for fables?
In his youthful unconcern about death Bloom becomes heroic and mythic,
craving all the wonders his mind and travels can conjure. Starting in his
own town with a human giant that's been ravaging the community and hiding out
in a cave, Bloom steps up to his hideout and demands he step forward. After
negotiating a better life for the outsized creature Karl (Matthew McGrory) he
takes him on a trip into the wider world, earning the town's gratitude and
the mayor granting him the key to the city.
Shortly after they begin their journey, the two travelers come to a fork in
the road. They disagree about which one to take. Since the roads appear to
be headed in the same direction, they agree to split up and meet where the
roads join. But they don't join, and Bloom gets deeply entangled in a
forest, coming out in the idyllic town of Spectre, a place where he's
welcomed as a hero and invited to stay forever, with every comfort provided.
But, just as he was too constrained in his own town, he declines this life,
and continues to seek his greater personal glory.
At a traveling circus, bloom sees an opportunity to provide work for the
good-natured Karl, whom he's found again, and has him outdo the current
circus giant, popping the eyes of the crowd and the somewhat nefarious circus
owner Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito). When Bloom spots a beauty of a girl
named Sandra (Alison Lohman), he has to negotiate with Calloway for
information about her, a bargain that binds Bloom to blissful servitude until
the lack of useful information causes him to drop the bliss.
Such is the tenor of the tales the elder Bloom has told for many years about
his life and how he found his beloved wife. For episode after episode, the
tales go on, intercut with Will's adversarial take on them, attempts to
research their basis, and coming to terms with a dying father.
Loaded with metaphor, Tim Burton puts together a fairy tale within a loose
construct of reality, suggesting the idealism of dreams and imagination as
something worth striving for. Worthy, but on a one or two color palette, a
certain tediousness sets in and we feel the boredom that sent Will running
from his father's oratory. In Bloom's steadfastness about the truth of his
fables, sympathy for him as a fellow striver dissipates. He never lets
go of his fanciful images and we never quite learn to take his side.
Always splendid Helena Bonham Carter serves up colorful shtick as the Witch
with the magic eye and the young and older Jenny, a lady who almost comes
between Bloom and his beloved Sandra. Jessica Lange is as moony as the
script calls for, as is Lohman whose quiet simplicity behind dreamy freshness
doesn't quite boost the fever of her liaison with the adoring Bloom.
McGregor's performance is a whimsical exaggeration that was likely fulfilling
the demands of the director following up on his poorly received "Planet
of the Apes" and looking in a more terrestrial zone for his inspiration and
His intentions are sweet and well-meaning; and the dreamscape comes up with
splendid and elaborate moments, if not quite achieving a plane of total
absorption. My advice is to go along with the magical reality that's
suggested. The visual wizardry of it helps that effort and, if you avoid
looking for an admission of fakery, you may find that exaggeration has
manifested itself as family-friendly entertainment.
~~ Jules Brenner