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Burton's inconsistent "Big Fish" eventually finds its way

by Eric Melin on January 9, 2004

in Print Reviews

Siamese twin sisters joined at the hip. A gentle giant. A pint-sized circus ringleader. A witch with a glass eye. And a fearless main character who has seen the method of his own death at a very young age. You’ve just landed in the middle of director Tom Burton’s larger-than-life new film, “Big Fish.”

It’s a fantastical place to be, for sure, and a life-affirming one as well. “Big Fish” ambles along at its own meandering pace until it finally reaches the conclusion, where the movie finally finds its way.

Burton’s style and visual flair have never been disputed. Movies like “Beetlejuice,” “Sleepy Hollow,” and his past “Batman” films have certainly proven that he is a man of vision. But rarely are his talents matched with such a grand story. Burton is mostly up to the task.

“Big Fish” is based on Daniel Wallace’s novel, “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions.” Perhaps the book’s story continuity is clearer than the film’s, which alternates between flashbacks of a young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) and an aged Bloom on his deathbed (Albert Finney), still telling the exaggerated tales of his life to his estranged son, William (Billy Crudup).

This isn’t necessarily a bad device. It’s just that when the story goes back to William, we’re not that interested anymore. Crudup has the thankless task of a doubting Thomas, so “Big Fish” creates an interesting dilemma for the viewer. We are supposed to feel bad for William because his father was never there for him. He was always off chasing one dream or another: a selfish, yet goodhearted man. But McGregor is so likable in the flashbacks that it is simply impossible to feel the same way about Edward Bloom that his poor son does.

At parts, Edward’s tales are fragmented, and take quite a while to point in any one direction. They are outlandish and inspired, but a couple key stories lack the dramatic push or comedic hilarity that they strive for. Some notable exceptions are Steve Buscemi’s brief appearances. One scene involving an old-timey hoedown had me in stitches.

Jessica Lange, who hasn’t had much screen time in recent years, has nothing to do. She is a supporting supportive character. She is there merely because she has to be, and that’s too bad. McGregor and Finney are quite good, however, and it’s their wonder-eyed portrayal of Edward that grounds our emotions and ultimately prepares us for the inevitable.

The deeper we get into this film, the more it becomes a pleasure to watch. Both the title and the characters of “Big Fish” prove to have multiple meanings. Facts are blurred and Bloom’s myths all turn in on themselves. The unusual people that populate these flashbacks exit abruptly, but later provide us with some closure.

Normal life just wasn’t good enough for Bloom, a man who used his wild imagination and aspired to live a remarkable fairy tale. These unlikely tales overshadowed the sum for me at first, but looking back on it, I think more fondly of them now than while I was actually viewing them.

I’m sure that another screening will do more for me because I loved where it all went. “Big Fish” left me with a good feeling, and lots of unforgettable moments that I can’t seem to shake.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes for The Pitch. He’s former President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, and Truck Stop Love . He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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