Critics are already comparing Tim Burton’s Big Fish to Forrest Gump, which is somewhat of a mis-association. American history happens to a passive Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’s naïve Oscar-winner. By contrast, Big Fish’s protagonist, Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor), happens to the American pastoral. In many ways, comparisons to Denys Arcand’s heinous The Barbarian Invasions are more apt. Both films center around a father-son disconnect, but only one truly attempts to understand the rocky relationship between parents and children. More positively, the film also plays out as a magical-realist companion to Emir Kusturica’s majestic Underground, which similarly challenged the way we watch movies.
Edward Bloom is a big fish in a small town, a Johnny Appleseed who refuses to settle for a life less ordinary. Over the course of the film, an older and ailing Edward (an incredible Albert Finney) spins tall tales for anyone who will listen: how he caught the biggest catfish in the world but how he had to let it go at the risk of losing his wedding ring; how he saved a small town from a hungry giant (Matthew McGrory) and stumbled upon a heaven-ly village after choosing the road less taken (Robert Frost would be proud); how he worked as an indentured servant for a lycanthropic circus master (Danny DeVito) for no pay (only the satisfaction of discovering new tidbits of information about his future wife); and so on.
These stories fail to compel Edward’s son, William (Billy Crudup), and it’s this lack of faith that Burton targets to illuminate our country’s notions of patriotism and spirituality, as well as connections to popular culture. Though Daniel Wallace’s novel of “mythic proportions” is as American as apple pie (not unlike, say, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure), Burton and screenwriter John August (Go and McG’s two Charlie’s Angels films) ensure the story’s universal appeal. “It’s rude to talk about religion,” says Edward at one point, cheekily pointing to the nonsecular nature of the stories he uses to engage the world around him. There’s no mention of God in the film, but there’s a god very much alive in Burton’s fantastical set pieces.
Big Fish is a cosmic gallery of gothic inventions and magical wish fulfillments. Edward may as well be an apostle sitting on top of a mountain, compulsively relating stories about the founding of a man and a nation. What with its many intertwining subplots, his life is a collection of Bible stories that engage our spiritual curiosity, asking us to entertain and cultivate myth over reason. When the young Edward finally wins the young Sandy (Alison Lohman), they stand in a field of yellow daffodils and the war zone where Edward defeated a familiar competitor resembles a crop circle in the shape of a sperm cell. These are the evocative images that perpetuate Edward’s personal and Burton’s aesthetic myth-making.
An older Sandy (Jessica Lange) gets into a bathtub fully clothed with her dying husband. “I don’t think I’ll ever dry out,” she whispers. It’s the most beautiful piece of dialogue you’ll hear in any film this year, because it not only speaks to the power of their love, it’s also indicative of just how saturated Burton’s images are with that love. There’s a suspicion that Edward Bloom may or may not have lived the fabulist life he compulsively speaks of. Whether or not he’s telling the truth is beside the film’s “surprise” ending. Big Fish is sentimental but never manipulative, a nonsecular tall tale that speaks to our universal desire to live life not necessarily to its fullest, but with wonderment of our very existence. It’s a simple but profound truth. Big Fish is love and death, Burton-style.