Cinema Signal:

"Things That Never Happen" "Characters quiver on the edge of discovering a great truth, uncovering a vast secret about the universe, or living a life previously unknown to them."

. "Big Fish"

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 wondering.

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 visions.

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Ewan McGregor as the young Bloom
Believe it

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