BIG FISH may be Tim Burtons most magical film to date. Paradoxically, its also one rooted firmly in reality, a la ED WOOD. Dont let that throw you. This is a landscape of the imagination as potent as anything Burton conjured up with EDWARD SCISSORHANDS or THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. There is a giant named Carl, a witch with an oracular glass eye, and a love story as irresistable as any found in a more conventional fairy tale.
Reality in this case being a relative thing and I mean that in two ways. The first is that of a father and son who dont see the world in quite the same way. The second is what that difference is. Father, Edward Bloom is a spinner of tall tales in which he recalls his long, rich life from the viewpoint of his emotions, charting the past with an emotional map that may get some of the particulars wrong, but nonetheless conveys with a flawless accuracy exactly what it felt like as any given moment to be Edward Bloom, hopeless romantic, madcap adventurer, and true believer of the enchantment that every day holds in store for us if only wed take the time to notice. The son, prophetically named Will Bloom, is also a spinner of tales, but of the newswire variety. Just the facts, maam, with no need or desire to see beyond them. Thus is it ever with the father-son dynamic.
We meet these two at Willss wedding, where as the toast, Edward is telling for the gazillionth time the story of the day Will was born. His objection is not so much that hes heard the story so many times, as that he is but a small footnote in it. The main action is Edwards mighty battle with a giant catfish over his wedding band, not new fatherhood. The result is that father and son dont speak for three years, becoming in Wills words, strangers who know each other well. That changes when Edward starts losing a battle with cancer and Will and his pregnant French wife rush home from Paris to Arkansas to be with him. Wills wife asks for the story of Edwards life and with fine southern loquaciousness, the entire history, from aerodynamic birth onward is played out for us on screen with wit, élan, and charm.
And this is, at heart, a thoroughly charming film, lulling us into its tall tales with a fine southern drawl and the earnest conviction of its version of the truth. Edward may or may not have toiled for three years in a circus in order to learn from its unscrupulous owner the name of the woman who stole his heart at first glance, but people in love jump through all sorts of metaphorical hoops in the name of romance. And though time doesnt actually stop at that first magical glance, McGregor stepping past people at the circus frozen mid-step, sweeping aside a veil of popcorn stopped in mid-tumble to the ground as he walks towards his true love, sublimely encapsulates exactly what that sort of moment feels like.
The tales are peopled by characters as colorful as the Technicolor-esque color saturation Burton uses when he shifts to the happier moments of Edwards inner life. A plucky poet (a wondrously twitchy Steve Buscemi) with writers block and a misguided sense of adventure, the circus owner (Danny DeVito) with a dark secret, and the sunny denizens of the mysterious town of Spectre, which Edward discovers when he takes the road less traveled in search of his destiny. The darker interludes are rife with the wicked plants and the evocative mossy mists of the Brothers Grim by way of Tennessee Wills, made, like all the visuals of Edwards tales, off-kilter with camera angles, that like Edward, look at life form a slightly different angle. At each stop along his way, Edward, as befits the memory palace of such an accomplished fabulist, is an opportunity to discover simple truths and the fun of slapstick for its own silly sake. In the real world, the characters are just as vivid. McGregor sparkles with the unshakeable self-confidence of a man who knows how he will die (thanks to the witch and her glass eye), and thus fears nothing in the meantime. He is the fairy tale prince played to perfection with boundless energy and without a hint of irony. Finney echoes that robust appetite for life, even as the elder Edward lies on his deathbed, curbed in body, but not in spirit and certainly not in imagination. There is the same sparkle, oddly undiminished in the wasting flesh. Jessica Lange does a superb turn as Sandra, the woman Edward was destined to marry, is achingly tender with a sweet smile and bright eyes barely holding back tears that convey the infinite sadness she feels losing the love of her life means. As Will, the testy son of a colorful father, Billy Crudup has the least showy role, but he makes the most of it by projecting an aura of premature stodginess and a resentment that has been percolating so long that its become as dull as everything else in Wills life.
After a few new angles on old tales pop up, Will discovers that fact and fiction are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In a synthesis as magical as anything told before, father and son reach an accord that is as joyous as it is sublimely moving. Burton and company do more than give us a film that is as wildly romantic as Edward himself, they also give us a work that is both spiritually uplifting and metaphysically playful. It shows us that myth is not only integral to the stories we choose to live out, but also that it is one with the fabric of existence, as necessary as the air we breathe and that without it, we suffocate.