Big Fish (2003, 125 Minutes, PG-13) is the last Tim Burton film that I can honestly say is magical. When I say “magical” to describe a movie, I’m not just talking about the technological gizmos employed to make fantastical elements come to life, I’m talking about the magical spell a good film can put on you to heighten your awareness and tickle you into high spirits. Ewan McGregor is also one of the nicest guys in the movies, and his performance as Edward Bloom, adventurer/nomadic misfit/storyteller, is the nicest guy he’s ever got to play. Romantic and unassuming, kind and thoughtful, he’s a regular Mr. Integrity.
Guys can take a lifetime of lessons in how to be a gentleman and never come out as naturally perfect. You girls out there must realize that guys as perfect as McGregor’s Edward Bloom are projected fantasies that only exist in the movies. We are successful as guys if we’re as good as he is for perhaps an hour at a time. But I digress.
The movie is a flashback of tall tales: circus giants and midgets, a southern gothic/carnival-esque village of moss and cobwebs and full of butterflies, a huge catfish with a personality, idyllic daffodil fields where love is declared, parachuting out onto Red China during the war, plus more. The flashbacks are told by dying Edward (played by Albert Finney), who tells these stories with literal earnestness.
You’re more in love with McGregor being in love with the act of love, than anything else. Alison Lohman is pretty and fine as the unattainable Sandra, but something about her performance smacks of disbelief. What touches you is McGregor’s dedicated, transfixed heart – he tracks her over large lands to find her again and again – he’s into the undying, do anything for love thing. And the whimsy of the film, so bright and cheery, with a magnified flair for the storybook mystical, is one that is a dazzler and a delight. This was the last time Burton truly had self-discipline on a film. Heck, it’s the last time Burton seemed to be in love with the art of making film. He’s been lost in murk and gunk since then (“Alice in Wonderland,” the current “Dark Shadows,” or how about the jaded whackness of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?).
If the otherwise glorious “Big Fish” significantly faults in any given way, it’s that Finney’s Edward Bloom is a way too crabby old man in contrast to McGregor’s unflappable interpretation of optimist Edward. The older Sandra is played just right by lovely woman/nurturing mother/caregiver/heart-mender Jessica Lange. Their grown-up son is played by Billy Crudup, tired of his old man’s story-webbing and just wants the blunt truth for once. I could have done without this. Because when Burton sets his film in an alternate reality, I am forever charmed and lost in its fantasia.
Film Cousins: “The Princess Bride” (1987); “Forrest Gump” (1994); “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000); “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004).