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Tim Burton’s Big Fish: Like Father Or Else

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Tim Burton’s Big Fish is one of the few movies that is about the choice of genre, in this case, romance versus realism. (Sidenote: The greatest movie to tackle the subject head on is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).) Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is a small-town Alabama salesman who has raised his son on a personal collection of tall tales, featuring a witch with a doom-revealing eye, a giant, a circus, a wolfman, a lawn of daffodils, a poet-bank robber-tycoon, Siamese twins, a mysterious town where no one wears shoes, and a big fish. His son Will (Billy Crudup) is a serious-minded reporter (i.e., a professional truth teller) who has moved to Paris to get away from his father because his storytelling always seemed to divert any attention that he himself might have got. When Will hears that Edward is dying he returns home and wants to hear from his father the truth about the old man’s life, the reality that Will thinks the stories cover up.

The movie, adapted from Daniel Wallace’s book, and originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg, has almost nothing but problems–inconsistencies, gaps, failures of taste–and yet I imagine it will be a big crowd-pleaser, in part because of its failure to develop the central theme of the salesman’s spiel versus the reporter’s facts. For the theme to have any tension, realism should have some advantages. If, for instance, the father were a financial failure, a charmer but unsuccessful, then we might be in a position to understand Will’s resistance to his romantic adventure tales. But the movie is clearly on the father’s side, because its main selling point, after all, is Tim Burton’s recreation of those stories. By comparison to Edward, Will seems like a prig who becomes human only when he in his turn tells his father a whopper to ease the dying man over the border.

Similarly, the movie is not at all a work of realism, but rather a double romance: how the young Edward (Ewan McGregor), seen in the flashback stories, wins his wife, and how the grown Will gets in sync with his patrimony. (It shares the latter trope, one of the fundamental forms of romance, with the ancient Aeneid, the medieval Parzival, Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Hamlet, and The Godfather movies. This form of romance contrasts fascinatingly with the New Comedy of Terence, one of the main sources of romantic comedy, in which fathers inevitably give way to their sons. Comedy, thus, stands in opposition not only to tragedy but to patriarchal romance as well.)

The general problem with Big Fish is that we’re meant to adore Edward’s stories and so the movie fawns over them, and since they make up the majority of the movie’s two-hour-plus running time, this means the movie fawns over itself. Without a greater tension between the romantic and realistic approaches, it’s almost unavoidable: Burton ends up making a tribute to his own storytelling style. Which I have loved, especially in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988), but also in the Catwoman parts of Batman Returns (1992), the spidery incongruities in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and some of the more wacky-tacky moments in Mars Attacks! (1996; the alien’s insincerity alarmingly cuts through all the liberal optimism about outer space, glorified by Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).) Burton’s comic range is a lot wider and more individual than his emotional range, which has been limited to childhood hurts, the boy who’s different, who’s left out. Big Fish has some of Burton’s signature weirdness but it foregrounds the emotional material that he doesn’t have an equivalent talent for. (The Spielberg of E.T.–The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is, in fact, better at bringing out these emotions in fantasy stories.)

Big Fish does have some neat stuff (I laughed hardest at the Communist ventriloquist act), and superb special effects (the heart-shaped Siamese twins with a single pair of legs are a marvel, and the movie manages to keep its giant in consistent proportion to the normal-sized people far better than Lord of the Rings did), but everything is slower than Burton at his best, and softer. And though the cinematography is by the great Philippe Rousselot (Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987), Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990)), the movie doesn’t have the saturated-but-diffuse glimmer you’d expect from him. The lighting is washed out which makes the sets look like they were built in the backyards of suburban tract homes for a neighborhood picnic. And yet they don’t have a homey look (like the friendly-fake design of David Byrne’s sole directing effort True Stories (1986))–they’re synthetic-festive but drab. Burton trained as a Disney animator (click here for career information) and visually his movies are all about bringing buggy ideas to life, not about the almost tactile beauty of celluloid, and so Rousselot was probably wasted on him anyway.

And when you start thinking about the elements at the soft center of the story, they don’t add up. I never could pin down the period it was supposed to be taking place in. In one flashback to the Alabama of the 1950s? 1960s? we see Edward as a boy with a group of friends including a middle-class black kid and you want to know whether someone’s rewriting history–either Edward or the moviemakers–or what might explain this oddity. The obstetrician who delivers Will in the 1960s? 1970s? is also African-American. (Just a few of the many places where contrasting realism would add dimensions to the movie.) There’s much more feel for the fantasy world than for the American South–again, romance chosen pre-emptively over realism. (One sign of this is the fact that Burton has not cast a single Southern actor in a major role. Can he really not hear how inadequate Danny DeVito‘s vocal technique is for the character of a blowhard Southern ringmaster?)

In addition, Albert Finney as the dying father doesn’t come across as an older version of the enchanted young Edward we see in the stories. He’s (too believably) an old bore who can always find a way around people’s insistence that they’ve already heard a story, while his wife looks on with amused tolerance. Finney has had the misfortune to become one of those English actors who are cast for their names regardless of their fitness for a role. He hasn’t furthered his technique but seems to have sunk into his gouty bulk. At times he can barely get the words out past his teeth. He carries a heavy-spirited atmosphere with him that’s entirely wrong for a man who has made a parallel life for himself out of charmingly quirky yarns.

Finney does have a good, gape-mouthed look here when his son objects to his going on and on–it’s the emblematic expression of the pest who can’t even conceive that people aren’t entranced by what he says. (Which is to say he’s not as miscast here as he was as Dr. Sloper in Agnieszka Holland’s faithful-isn’t-everything adaptation of Washington Square (1997; I can’t think of a role in Henry James that Finney would be right for).) And it’s not his fault to the extent the movie doesn’t really ask him to do something difficult, for instance, to get at the unsettling pathos of the father whose exertions to entertain his son are perceived by the son as a form of neglect.

This feeling lurks, but finally we’re asked simply to love the old Edward not the young one, which McGregor, with his Claymation smile, makes so easy. For that matter, we’re not really asked. Instead, the movie applies the same kind of emotional pressure on the audience that families put on you, not just to make peace with the most demanding personalities while holding your own, but to give in to them. Maybe this is why audiences are swallowing this half-baked sugar pie. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s a sign Tim Burton’s talent has matured.

A final note: in this interview with FilmForce Burton expresses how I feel about computer graphic images in movies:

Of course, actor Matthew McGrory was only a mere 7’6″, not the towering behemoth seen in the film. Burton explained how they enhanced McGrory’s height. “A lot was in camera. It was just angles and lenses. It was important to me to not overdo CG stuff because since you can do anything, it just felt like it needed to remain on a more sort of handmade human funky level just because of the nature of the stories and what the movie is.”

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Excellent penetration into the goop within as always – thanks Alan!

  • Ken J

    Great, another “ain’t I a smarty-pants” style review. You know the kind, where the reviewer fawns over himself.

  • karinbadt

    very much enjoyed this review. Am a professor in Paris, and was about to use this film in a class, because so many people have recommended it, but found it absolutely vapid. It doesn’t have the emotional payoff of Edward Scissorhands, and this reviewer carefully shows why the story itself doesn’t work, with no real characters creating tension and depth. The softness of the story, the sappyness of the character construction, is not made up for by the cleverness of the imaginative clips.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thanks for the comment, these many years later. They’re always appreciated.