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Big Fish Print E-mail
Tuesday, 27 April 2004

Big Fish

Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: PG-13
starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard, Steve Buscemi, Danny Devito
release year: 2003
film rating: Four and a Half Stars
sound/picture: Four Stars
reviewed by: Paul Lingas

A truly remarkable film that combines Tim Burton’s bizarre and wonderful reality-twisting imagination with a heartfelt story of a son’s inability to reconcile his father’s past with the stories he is known to tell. “Big Fish” is one of Burton’s best films because it takes us back to the Burton of old, the one who showed the world in a different way to illustrate how each of us can see the same world differently, while planting within it the ever-present realities of family relationships.

This is the premise of the film, where William Bloom (Billy Crudup), the estranged son of Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) and Sandra Bloom (Jessica Lange) returns home to tend to the ailing patriarch, who from the very day of his son’s birth has had a penchant for telling whopping stories. The title “Big Fish” refers to elements within the story, but also cleverly references the common idea that fishermen always exaggerate the size of the fish they catch. This is the sort of man Edward Bloom is and it has always disturbed his son. Will realizes that this might be the last chance to find out who his father really is, but he doesn’t get anything but what are, at least to him, the same type of exaggerated stories he has always heard. Will’s French wife, Josephine (Marion Cotillard), is interested in the stories, however, and so we are taken back in time to find out how Edward Bloom lived.

In various flashbacks of storytelling, we meet the young Edward (Ewan McGregor), who leads an exciting and charmed life in the small town of Ashton, Alabama. He excels at sports and is always willing to do the dangerous thing, the brave and heroic thing. Everyone loves him except for one young man who always suffers for Edward’s glory. After a time, Edward realizes he must leave the small town to find his fortune. He meets a giant and gets him to accompany Edward out of town. Edward and the giant soon join the circus, run by the strange Amos (Danny DeVito). While there, Edward sees Sandra (Alison Lohman) for the first time. Edward works at the circus in return for learning one fact per month about her. After a few years, he finally finds her and proposes, but she is already engaged. Undeterred, Edward continues to do the extraordinary and wins her heart. Soon he is called away to war, and his war experience is anything but ordinary. Edward parachutes into China and smuggles away a vital piece of information, as well as a pair of singing and dancing conjoined twins. Everything that Edward does is fantastical and everyone he meets strange and wonderful. Yet everything that happens is based in reality. The filmmakers always take care to not make anything so extraordinary that it is beyond belief. It is simply, like the big fish of legend, larger than life.

Will tries to get his father to say who he really is, but Edward insists that he has always been who he is and that Will simply cannot see it. It is an intriguing way to show the common conflicts and resolutions that occur between fathers and sons. Each one is always trying to outdo the other until that day when they can finally understand who the other one really is. Burton combines his ability to twist reality with a subtle ability to imbue the contemporary family drama with the notion that Edward simply has led a wonderful life. We as the audience cannot help but be won over by him, and yet we can also understand Will’s frustration with his father’s penchant for stretching the truth. The film is funny, bizarre, playful and at its heart exceptionally touching and moving.

The performances are all exceptionally strong, especially by McGregor, who imbues Edward with a charming smile and winning attitude of resilience and aggressively cheerful fortitude that wins the audience over early and never lets go of our attention. Finney easily translates the same winning attitude to the older Edward, and never for a moment do we doubt the veracity of his stories. Crudup, always just below the radar, does an excellent job of playing with grace and dignity the only character who is not won over by his father’s attitudes and stories. We are made to understand his perspective while cheering for the reconciliation of father and son. Lange, Lohman, DeVito, Steve Buscemi and others all round out the cast magnificently, each of them bringing to life this fine novel by author Daniel Wallace, on which “Big Fish” is based. The score, by longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, captures both the fantastic nature of the material and the idea of the life of not only Edward Bloom but of all of our lives.

This is a fine DVD, its special features focusing on all aspects of the film, from the genesis of the story to the casting of the actors to the look of the film. There is a particularly interesting piece that examines the relationships between fathers and sons and the filmmakers’ perspectives on this ongoing fact of life. Burton makes the point that film allows us to see and create feelings and emotions that can’t always be expressed in words. This is a particularly strong theme that flows throughout the film and is brought to life through the DVD. All of the featurettes are made by the same company and simply focus on different aspects of the filmmaking experience. Each one is relatively short and taken as a whole they do cover almost everything. They have been broken up nicely so that they may be enjoyed piece by piece. In addition, there is the “Fish Tales” portion, which allows the viewer to activate icons that pop up during the film. Click on one of the icons and you will be taken to another behind-the-scenes moment that explains aspects of that particular scene. Once the clip has played, the film resumes where it left off.

Director Burton’s commentary is very good. He comes across as a filmmaker who not only understands his own style and place within the filmmaking world, but also as someone who understands the delicate balance required between Edward Bloom’s contemporary “real” life and his nearly legendary past. Burton focuses mainly on the production’s portrayal of the world through the many levels of production. Unlike many directors, he comments frequently on the performances of the actors and their abilities to infuse the film with the right balance of reality and fantasy.

The transfer is superb, though the sound is only available in Dolby Digital 5.1. For those of you with stereo only, the mix still comes through fine, though some surround elements are diminished. There are a few very odd Easter eggs, one of which is easy to find and others that are more of a challenge. Don’t say you weren’t warned. If there was a downside, it would be the lack of any deleted and/or altered scenes and the prevalence of trailers that precede the film upon disc insertion. Luckily, these can be bypassed but prove to be an annoyance at times.

“Big Fish” is a film for any type of moviegoer. It has heart, hilarity, interesting characters, thrilling moments and, best of all, possesses that unique Tim Burton outlook on the world. As many of the filmmakers say in the featurettes, the film is truly “Burtonesque” and belongs on anyone’s shelf.

more details
sound format:
English 5.1 Dolby Digital, French Dolby Surround
aspect ratio(s):
1.85:1 Enhanced for Widescreen TVs
special features: Director Tim Burton Audio Commentary; The Character’s Journey: Edward Bloom at Large; Amos at the Circus; Fathers and Sons; The Filmmakers’ Path: Tim Burton: Storyteller; A Fairytale World; Creature Features; The Author’s Journey; The Finer Points Trivia Quiz; Fish Tales; English and French Subtitles
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Panasonic DVD-XP50
receiver: Denon AVR-3802
main speakers: Polk RT 600i
center speaker: Polk CS 400i
rear speakers: Polk S4
monitor: 43” Sony KP-43HT20

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