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Big Fish


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Big Fish
Tim Burton I 2003 I USA
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Upon seeing Big Fish, many people may have wondered, where is the darkness that characterized Burton's films so much? Where is the inevitable pessimism, the gothic-like, sordid atmosphere, or that strange nihilism that lurked under the surfaces of films such as Sleepy Hollow or Batman? You needn't wonder. While fantasy master Tim Burton may have left his sinister worlds behind, his filmmaking techniques are as fresh, effective and magical as ever. Because Big Fish is a haunting film. It may contrast with the sheer gloom that was thoroughly palpable in most of his previous films, but it is every bit as bewitching, lingering and evocative as the sum of its predecessors -- in fact, this may be Burton's finest film to date.  


It is true that filmmakers often argue that there is more artistic potential in the darkness to the light, pessimism to optimism, complexity to straightforwardness. And it is also true that Burton showed us this in his earlier films, but there's always time for a change. Like David Lynch did with the brilliant The Straight Story, he now presents us a totally different world, dissimilar to his preceding stories yet told in the same fascinating manner. This time round, the darkness has left, and colours have taken place; there is no occasion for negativity, either, because it is now the positivism of it all that most bewilders the viewer. This is mostly due to the lead character, Edward Bloom [a fantastic Ewan McGregor], who, with his happy-go-lucky approach and inimitable determination, obtains whichever thing he reaches out for. Yet, time is running out for Bloom, a teller of tales, because the years have gone by and now he's an old man, who is about to die [played by Albert Finney]. His ever-distancing son Will [Billy Crudup] hasn't talked to him for three years, but he is aware that he now has to reconcile. His father's stories have seldom translated well to him; since he was a kid, every night, his dad used to tell him the most wonderful stories about a witch; but when he reached the age of five, he ceased believing in them. Will has got married and carved a life of his own; he resides in Paris with his wife but, when discovering the news of his father's illness, he travels back to his home in Ashton, Alabama. From then on, he tries to discover who his dad really is. "Dad, you're like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined -- you're just as charming, just as fake." He knows that his father's true persona is buried deep beneath the outside, and that with enough searching, he may be able to find it.


Burton is known for his amazing capability to weave extraordinary, almost dream-like worlds. With Big Fish he has accomplished what he's done before, but with [could it be?] more finesse and passion. Bloom's wonderful tales are narrated almost perfectly, with Burton using an eye for detail and an obsession for mesmerising set pieces that prove to be hard to match. You always get a sense of escapism when you visit those worlds that Burton has created, a sense of hope and liberation; but, most of all, sadness, if only because you know that you'll never be able to really be there. Such is the case with the vast majority of Burton's work: his films illustrate such enthralling worlds that once the viewer leaves the cinema one feels somewhat poignant. At least that's what one could say about Edward Scissorhands or Nightmare Before Christmas -- and Big Fish is no exception. Imagination and visionary genius run amok in the film, what with the stories of the giant, the witch, the circus, the haunted woods, the mermaids, the town of Spectre, the Siamese singers and whatnot. Burton's sight has not been spoiled -- actually, it is as delicate as ever. Gloriously photographed and immaculately depicted, the set pieces and the situations that Bloom tells [and finds himself in] are all as memorable as the one that preceded it. Finding his hometown too small a pond for the big fish he intends to be, he sets out on a journey in the search of a bigger world, with the giant accompanying him in many of his adventures. He crosses the ambiguous woods, with its twisting trees and scary-looking crows, stops in the town of Spectre, where eternally happy-looking people go to and fro barefoot, and where the poet Norther Winslow [Steve Buscemi] is working on his next poem. Having worked for more than a year in the circus run by a ringmaster [Danny de Vito], he begins to court Sandra [an irresistibly lovely Alison Lohman], goes to college, parachutes into Korea [giving way to one of the film's funniest and most unforgettable sequences], helps rebuild a bankrupt town and meets a stranger [Helena Bonham Carter] whom he's actually met before -- or has he?. Burton's bizarre characters and strange ambience turn the film into a swirling kaleidoscope of a reality that is a mere exaggeration of the truth, but for some reason or other, Bloom's son fails to see this.


On the visual, aesthetic side, it is clear that Burton's story is superlative, but what about elsewhere? The acting is rather terrific; McGregor finds a balance between a charming and likeable character, whereas Finney seems to have altered a lot during the pass of time, even though his ability to tell stories is intact. The Bloom character seems to have grown from extroverted to somewhat pretentious and self-centred [as his son says], but Burton always depicts him as an amiable personage, whose level of understanding has deteriorated slightly overtime. Yes, so saying that McGregor and Finney are both stunning is not an overstatement. However, there is much support that comes from the other actors, such as Jessica Lange [as Bloom's senior wife], Bonham Carter and Steve Buscemi [the bank-robbing scene is especially great], Matthew McGrory [he has the biggest foot size in the world his acting skills are not bad, either], and Danny de Vitto, an usual scene-stealer who plays the part werewolf circus owner. Danny Elfman's Oscar-nominated score is also a standout, providing Burtons imagination with a fine, evoking aural gusto.


Okay, let me get this off my chest: had someone else attempted to film this story, it would have most likely failed -- and miserably at that. There is no denying that this kind of material suits Burton's inimitable imagination like a glove. And it shows. "Dad, I have no idea who you are." Will says to his father.  "What do you want Will? Who do you want be to be?" His dad answers. "Just yourself, just show me who you are for once." Big Fish is arguably Burton's most impacting film on the emotional side. Humanistic and surprisingly full of wisdom, the film talks to us about death, family relationships, love, courage, perseverance and various other themes, all as relevant as the other. Nowadays, it seems, we viewers are continually being attacked by films that portray a reality as grim as it is deplorable; while there is nothing wrong with this, as long as it is reasonable, cinema, more often than not, lacks that true sense of optimism. Big Fish has this in abundance, and thus it comes as a breath of fresh air. Bloom is a bed-ridden man whose death is nigh, but he never loses sense of direction -- he knows where hes always wanted to go, and that is precisely where he'll go, regardless. His son fails to comprehend him in the sense that he thinks his dad tells lies, and that his stories are nothing more than a bunch of meaningless balderdash; mere gobbledygook and nothing more. It's a wonderful lie, Bloom's son may have thought. The connection that once joined them is now nowhere to be seen; eventually, however, in one of the most touching finales I have ever witnessed, the two of them fully are brought together, and what once seemed false is, in fact, true. Or is it? Burton does not openly tell us the real truth, although what is shown is closer to it than the other assumption; the point of it all simply lies in the fact that when one invents a story, it will not just affect oneself. The differences between reality and fiction are few and far between, yet Burton wants to tell us that every once in a while they can be as equal to each other. The message that the director gives us in the end is not just one; there are many, many morals to be found within the film, and that is an excellent thing.


There are few people who can persuade you to believe unbelievable tales, but Burton does it with admirable brilliance. I haven't been as enchanted by a film as I was when I saw Big Fish, a film so funny, creative and captivating that it leads you to believe whether Capra could have actually filmed it, what with its sheer optimism and all. "Every time you ring a bell, an angel gets its wings", we were told in Its a Wonderful Life. Well, in Burton's film we're told that there's always enough time to catch a big fish, and that some opportunities are not to be missed -- life can be immensely rich, or immensely poor, and you always have to choose the right path. Quirky, lightly heartfelt and delightfully whimsical, Big Fish is both a banquet for the eyes and a charismatic piece of cinema that will no doubt be looked on as a classic in a few years time -- I mean, there's always hope right?



Reviewed by Pablo Hernandez, 2004