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The International Writers Magazine
:Review of Tim Burton's Big Fish

Big Fish - Director Tim Burton
Dan Schneider

Tim Burton is such a predictable director of films that even when, on the surface, he seems to be stretching himself, he’s actually merely distorting art towards his own relentlessly immature aesthetic. In a sense he’s the dark filmic counterpoint to Steven Spielberg’s gauzey light pabulum. Neither has a fundamental grasp of what it is to be human, nor the essence of a good tale. Quirkiness does not equal interesting. If you doubt that you must find Tourette’s sufferers fascinating rather than annoying.

Big Fish is TB’s attempt to do ‘adult’ drama, yet it so desperately tries to rip off the best in other films- even less successful ones like Forrest Gump, a tale similarly set in Alabama. Along with that film’s everyman-ness Big Fish tries to channel the warmth of My Dog Skip, the father-son dynamic of October Sky, and the rites of passage feel of Stand By Me. While it does not succeed as well as the aforementioned trio this is a good movie. Yet, dammit, with another director this could have been a great movie, certainly a lot better than Burton’s previous bests - the flawed but interesting Ed Wood and Planet Of The Apes. Instead, it’s maybe just a little better. It’s like when you see the goddess of your dreams but she turns out to be an anti-semite, smoker, or lesbian.

Let me remove myself from despair and give you the capsule tale: an old talespinner- Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is dying and his son, Will (Billy Crudup), wants to know the reality behind the stories that so charm everyone else- including Ed’s wife Sandra (Jessica Lange) and Will’s wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard). The last few days of Ed’s life give way to flashbacks and fantasies. The young Ed (Ewan McGregor) has all sorts of adventures: he meets a giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory), discovers a Utopian town called Spectre, befriends a witch, catches an elusive legendary big fish, and joins a circus run by a werewolf named Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito). He joins the circus to get information on the girl of his dreams- the young Sandra (Alison Lohman) who’s engaged to his childhood nemesis. Later, he becomes a military spy and rescues a pair of gorgeous Chinese Siamese twins named Ping and Jing from the Red Army. But, at his death, Ed clings to his fantasies - except, of course- they may not really be fantasies- Ed’s funeral is attended by the giant, witch, werewolf, Siamese Twins, and more. Even Will starts to believe and as Ed dies he starts mythologizing along with his dad, spinning a tale of how Ed turns into the mythic big fish(/in a small pond, of course!. The problem is anyone with a brain could see the ending a mile away. The crescendo of heartstrings were being plucked midway through the movie. The film is well acted and well shot, but the script is atrocious. God, how I wanted to love this film but I can only call it a noble failure, and each time I think about it - I saw it a few days ago- I have to rank the film lower and lower.

The problem lies directly with the film. In order for ‘magical realism’ to work you have to have a ‘reality’ base. If you start off in fantasy you have no realism to ground the film in. This is why even such renowned writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez are vastly overrated. One could accept the mythic tales of giantsand witches,more easily were they grounded in a real Alabama. For example, Ed Bloom is born in the 30's yet he was delivered by a black doctor, palled around with a black kid, went to church with black s- in what USA was that? This relentless PC is a serious rot in what could be a strong foundation. Another problem is that most of the tales Ed told Will as a boy were clearly fantasies, yet most good tale tellers learn to gauge their audience and adjust accordingly. Ed does not, so his son is somewhat right in feeling his dad is an egocentric blowhard. Yet, nothing changes that dynamic by film’s end- Will merely decides to give in to the delusions and the essential problem between father and son is not resolved, just ignored. The reason is obvious - TB is far more interested in the fantasy sequences than the human element, for he’s still the junior high schooler content at doodling fantasy characters in the margins of his notebooks rather than a mature director of film.

Ed Bloom is not so much a real person as a device to freeform a fantasia. This brings me to probably the main problem with the film - its narcissistic and masturbatory need to ‘tell’ its audience that ‘stories are important and powerful’ to humans, rather than ‘showing’ that fact with a helluva good yarn. The film’s dictum is ‘if a man tells his stories enough he becomes the stories’- well, DUH!

When one speaks of Shakespeare the odds are about 99% that the reference is to the plays or sonnets, not the stiff under Stratford. Still, this is overall a good film - there is a wonderful sequence where young Ed first sees Sandra and time stops. He walks through hoops and juggler’s balls fall to the ground as he walks by. This is a great sequence because it does simulate that feeling, but we’ve seen the time-stop before. What makes the scene a winner is that, to compensate for that momentary sensation, time has to speed up. Doing so causes Ed his opportunity to meet and woo Sandra for a few years. This is truly unique, but- alack - the only instance of using fantasy to serve a narrative purpose, and not just be ‘ooh-ah’ fantastical! That TB only does this once in the film confirms it was a happy accident, not an understood exercise of filmic control. Still, the acting of Finney and McGregor is superb, as are the other supporting performances. Originally, after viewing the film, I wanted to give it an 85 out of 100, but with a few days to get over the well done manipulations I’ll grade it out at a 70, 75 if being generous.

As for the DVD- the film transfer and sound quality are good and there are a bevy of features on the making of the film, but none that are really insightful, just the typical ‘ain’t we great’ backpats. In a sense, though, that’s apropos since the whole film seems to take itself as far more serious and weighty than it is. Such out of proportion hubris is the bane of much inferior and pointless art, but especially galls when the art truly could have been noteworthy and settles for less. Big Fish is that one that got away.
© Dan Schneider December 2004

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