It’s a fairly easy joke to make that you can tell what to expect from a certain director’s work, especially someone as idiosyncratic as Tim Burton. His entire oeuvre is defined by his world view and signature style. His 2003 release Big Fish might be a text book definition of a Tim Burton film, and it’s a moving one at that.
Big Fish, like all Burton stories, is about an outsider. Edward Bloom in the present is a man dying and looking for a chance to make up with his son, William, from whom he is estranged. His tall tales that have enchanted everyone in his life grate on his son who pointedly says to his father, “I feel like I don’t even know you. The real you.”
The Burton stuff is there in spades – difficult home lives, trees that look to be sculpted, the allure of solitude, the fear of conformity, his regular troupe of actors (Helena Bonham Carter, Missi Pyle, Deep Roy), Danny DeVito in a weird circus, that strange 50s Americana that is both gorgeous and terrifying, fish, spinning around in circles – it’s all there. But what sets this apart from more overtly Burton films is the melancholy.
Sure, Burton has a history with the gothic. There’s a tragedy to a lot of his protagonists stories, but there is an underlying sadness to the story of Edward Bloom who has told his tall tales for so long he believes them as gospel. In the lead role, Ewan McGregor is filled with the wide eyed optimism that he also pulls off successfully in Moulin Rouge!, while Albert Finney as the older Edward is perfectly cast as someone so avuncular that you fall in love with him the first time you hear his overripe twang.
It might be because that role is so appealing that everyone else comes across as two-dimensional. The women in the story are all supportive types who don’t do much except offer Edward a chance to better his own life and to support him regardless of his actions. In the role of William, Edward’s son, Billy Crudup is handed the hardest role. William is a sourpuss for much of the film, loathing his father’s stories and filled with resentment. Crudup is clearly filling a role that would otherwise have gone to Johnny Depp. Luckily, he’s filled with a kind of longing that allows the film to have a stronger emotional core.
Big Fish has a lot less of the whimsy that other Burton films carry. That melancholy mutes much of it so as the film goes to an idyllic town, a bank robbery, dances, and a circus, it never actually turns into something like Batman Returns or Beetlejuice. Instead, Big Fish owes as much in it’s creation to a later “big” themed Burton movie – Big Eyes. Both see him tone down his eccentricity to tell a story filled with wonder but with a more muted edge. Even the score by Danny Elfman opts for a much more mild tone only occasionally falling into the more Elfman-like scores you’d expect from a Burton film.
By the time the film closes and it’s last image fades out, you’ll understand why the pacing, the tone, and the mood have been slowed down and why the film goes at a more leisurely pace. Like all good stories – it’s the journey to the resolution that matters, not the punchline.
Big Fish will be released on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-Ray in the UK on May 3rd.