Tim Burton’s heyday arguably ended with his ill-advised Planet of the Apes (2001) remake, after 15-years of quirky and successful movies, peaking with 1994’s Ed Wood. However, Big Fish was a last gasp of creativity before he slipped into children’s adaptations and a degree of self-parody. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) was his last good movie that pushed him creatively, but Big Fish nevertheless feels like the moment when Burton’s time as a wunderkind came to an end.
Daniel Wallace’s book Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions was published in 1998 and almost immediately adapted for the screen by John August, who was a hot new talent at the time following Go (1999) and the two Charlie’s Angels (2000-03) movies. Big Fish was a more whimsical story for August and suited Burton’s quirky sensibilities, but with a lighter tone than his gloomier style that made his name with Beetlejuice (1988). While there are a few nighttime scenes that evoke some Burton classics (particularly a sequence involving a glass-eyed witch), Big Fish mostly takes place in vibrant daylight that’s a picture postcard vision of 1950s Americana. It’s also has more down-to-earth substance, as the core theme is of a man trying to reconcile with his father.
Big Fish plays rather like Burton’s take on Forrest Gump (1994), as it’s likewise mostly told in flashback and follows the misadventures of a charismatic young man from the Deep South. This half of the movie allows Burton to indulge his naturally kooky tastes, with vignettes based around a series of unlikely incidents that young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) finds himself embroiled in: from encountering a soothsayer who knows how you’ll die, to befriending a gentle giant, joining a circus with a werewolf ringmaster (Danny DeVito), experiencing love at first sight with a beautiful girl called Sandra (Alison Lohman), and being drafted into the US army to fight in the Korean War. There are some clear parallels to Forrest Gump (certainly with both unlikely heroes having a sweet-natured paramour and joining the military), but the difference is that Gump was a lovable simpleton whose life got inexplicably woven into the fabric of major 20th-century events, whereas Bloom’s own incredible life story might be a big lie.
Which brings us to the second half of Big Fish, set in the present-day, with winsome Edward (Albert Finney) now old and dying of cancer. He since married his beloved Sandra (Jessica Lange) and they have an adult son together, Will (Billy Crudup), although Edward’s relationship with his boy’s grown distant in later life. The big problem Will’s grappling with is that, as his father’s time on earth reaches its end, he doesn’t feel like he’s ever truly known the reconteur with a glint in his eye. His father’s talk of giants, Siamese twins, and mermaids were exciting to hear when Will was little and had a head full of dreams, but now he resents never knowing the boring truth.
I enjoyed Big Fish when it came out in 2003, and it’s only ripened with age. Or rather, I have. My own father died of cancer in 2012, so anything dealing with the loss of a parent or a father-son relationship hits me more emotionally now. I was entertained by the array of peculiar stories originally (which are still fun and necessitate a brisk pace), but the emotional bedrock between Finney and Crudup left a bigger impression on this viewing. And it’s certainly where the movie’s true magic lies, in tackling questions about how fathers and sons develop a bond, how this dynamic changes once you’re both adults, and how some people prefer to hide behind self-created myths than put themselves out on display (even to their own family).
It feels like Tim Burton was trying to transition into more mature fare with Big Fish, after focusing so much on lighthearted genre oddities in the 1980s and ’90s. This story offers an even split between the magical realism one expects from Burton, and a grounded human drama with lots to say about how people are remembered after they pass. Isn’t storytelling the root to immortality? Burton’s parents died a few years before he agreed to make Big Fish, and those losses reportedly had a big effect on him, despite not being especially close to his mother and father when they were alive. Writer John August’s dad had also just passed away when he first read Big Fish, so this project struck gold in being ushered to life by two real-life Will Bloom types.
Big Fish doesn’t get discussed as much as Burton’s other work, probably because his previous work left a bigger impact on culture (even the outright flops). And his subsequent work has been of such mixed quality that people assume everything post-Planet of the Apes is a write-off. And that’s a shame, because this film is more accessible to those who feel Burton’s work is superficial or always filled with black-and-white spirals and orchestral Danny Elfman soundtracks. Big Fish presented him with a rare opportunity to use his visual skill and eccentric worldview to power a story that fundamentally works on a human level. It gradually sneaks up on you as something quite special, ending with a poignant climax of heartfelt emotions.
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USA | 2003 | 125 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • CANTONESE
4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Special Features:
Making its 4K debut on home video, Big Fish benefits from the added resolution keeping some film grain more resolved so it looks less ‘noisy’ than the old Blu-ray. HDR10 also helps makes the blacks deeper, which creates an altogether more pleasing and dynamic image, if not exactly pin-sharp or demo-worthy material. There’s a cinematic warmth that’s enjoyable to behold and it’s certainly an improvement over the 2012 Blu-ray, if not radically so.
We do get a big improvement in the audio, with the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio trumped by a new Dolby Atmos mix. This gives the movie a lot more oomph aurally, despite not being a film that screams surround sound nirvana, and I appreciated hearing the uptick in quality over the already decent DTS-HD track.
The previous Blu-ray of Big Fish only contained Tim Burton’s excellent commentary track, so this 4K Ultra HD upgrade thankfully brings back some of the older DVD extras too.
- Director’s Commentary moderated by Mark Salisbury. A welcome return of this old DVD commentary track, which is one of Burton’s best. He’s usually prone to long silence and unnecessary tangents without someone to keep him on track, so it helps enormously to have Mark Salisbury (author of Burton on Burton) coax plenty of entertaining details about the making the movie. If you’re into these sorts of things, it’s the highlight of the disc.
- Original EPK.
- The Character’s Journey. A featurette split into three parts: ‘Edward Bloom at Large’, ‘Amos at the Circus’, and ‘Fathers and Sons’. These contain interviews with the major characters and include B roll of a deleted scene with Edward wrestling a pig into a tutu.
- The Filmmakers’ Path. A featurette split into four parts: ‘Tim Burton: Storyteller’, ‘A Fairytale World’, ‘Creature Features’, and ‘The Author’s Journey’. These provide a good overview of how the film was made, from the production design and VFX to how the story was written.
- Easter Eggs.
- Theatrical Trailer.
Cast & Crew
director: Tim Burton.
writer: John August (based on the novel ‘Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions’ by Daniel Wallace).
starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard, Steve Buscemi & Danny DeVito.