Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

‘Big Fish’ Is An Engaging Whopper Of A Tale

By JANE WILSON, Special Contributor | Published January 15, 2004

“Big Fish,” the latest film from director Tim Burton, is both fantastical and engaging, combining tall tales with a heart-felt story of an estranged father and son finally bridging the gap that separates them.

The movie begins with Edward Bloom’s favorite story, how he once caught a giant fish that was legendary for its elusiveness by using his wedding ring as bait. The story takes place on the day his son, Will, is born, and Edward tells the story at every opportunity as his son grows up. Finally, at Will’s wedding reception, the son confronts his father, and berates him for stealing the limelight at every major event in the boy’s life by telling this story that is more about Edward himself than about Will.

The pair do not speak again for several years until Will, living with his wife in Paris and with a child of his own on the way, learns that his father is dying. He returns home, with a desire to mend fences and finally learn the truth about his father’s life, which, due to Edward’s job as a traveling salesman, included much time spent away from home and family.

Edward stubbornly does not try to understand Will’s desire to know the unvarnished truth, but Will persists and learns much about his father’s life. The film is narrated by Will, who is a writer. Significantly, though, he is a news writer, not a fiction writer. He does not understand the appeal of an entertaining story. As he investigates his father’s life, we see both illustrations of the tall tales Edward has told throughout the years and the facts that Will finds.

Although it is not surprising that the two come to an understanding, the way in which Will finally learns to accept and even cherish his father’s imagination is unexpected and touching. He finally realizes that the tales were never intended to keep his family at a distance and hide Edward’s true actions but were instead a way to create a legacy and a legend.

Tim Burton, known for the surreal aspects of his films, gives life to the tall tales, including Edward’s visit to a witch with a glass eye that allows him to see the future, his friendship with a giant, his visit to an enchanted town and his exploits with the circus and in the Army. Fittingly, these stories are a combination of appealing visual effects, larger-than-life exploits and improbable characters who exhibit very real human emotions.

The visual design of the tall tale scenes is often stunning: The trees that overhang the mysterious path Edward takes through a deserted swamp lend a properly menacing touch; a field of daffodils that he uses to frame his marriage proposal to the love of his life, Sandra, are as bright as sunshine; and the serene town of Specter is convincing as a place no one would want to leave. These settings add to the candy-colored charm of the stories.

Ewan McGregor plays Edward Bloom as a young man with brash charm and an unflagging energy. As the mature Edward, Albert Finney is more stubborn and unyielding but still charming and spirited. Together, these actors create an Edward Bloom who might be conceited and overbearing, but who has a huge heart and is very likeable. The physical resemblance between the two actors is surprising, which is accentuated with a strong vocal similarity (and, by the way, both British actors do passable Southern accents).

The supporting cast members are equally fine. Billy Crudup as Will is slightly stiff, which is not necessarily a detriment for his character. Although he places the blame for the estrangement on his father, he must learn to open up and accept Edward as he is.

Like Finney and McGregor, Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman bear a strong resemblance to each other; they play the mature and the young Sandra, Edward’s wife. Unfortunately, they are not given much to do. Lohman’s part primarily consists of reacting to Edward, and Lange, as the mature Sandra, serves mainly as a mediary between father and son. They both provide a steady presence in the film, however, as does Robert Guillaume as Dr. Bennett, who provides some timely words of wisdom to Will. Danny De Vito, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi and Matthew McGrory add color as over-the-top characters in the tall tales.

The story, though, is really about the big fish himself, Edward Bloom. As the tales and the facts are meshed together, we see how he made the most of his opportunities and touched the lives of those around him in the most unlikely ways. The film uses humor, charm and sentiment to create a human portrait of a larger-than-life character.

Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.