Big Fish (2003)
It doesn’t make sense, and most of it didn’t happen.
Will Bloom struggles to reconnect with his father Edward as Ed’s entire life is retold in epic, tall tale-style.
Why We Love It
First and foremost, I should admit that most of the reason I love Big Fish is that I’ve seen it 15 times and cried every single time. Its light and airy, creative with a great sense of humor, and yet the true story of a lost connection between a father and son is important enough to get those waterworks going every time.
The main reason this movie is so great is the story itself. It’s a return to a storytelling that we’d forgotten about. The recreation of fairy tales that are brand new but seem familiar. Every segment of Edward Bloom’s life is mostly believable and just partially fantastical. Instead of delving deep into a false world, Tim Burton adds a bit of a shine and spark to our reality so that it remains recognizable while still amazing us. It is a story told about the life of a man, the end of that life, and the eternal nature of it as it’s carried on by his son.
There’s something ancient and deeply human about that concept – one that goes back to the earliest cultures on the planet. It’s also an idea that’s gone out of fashion in a way, but the idea that we can achieve immortality through our children is brought into bright forefront along with the psychological weight of finding elements of your father in yourself, working through distance with a family member, and finding closure. Yes, it’s the kind of movie that legitimizes Freud and makes you want to call your father afterward.
It’s also a rare movie for two practical reasons. The first is that, like last week’s spotlight on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it’s a solid example of magical realism in American filmmaking. Yet again, it’s set in the south, the only place in the country with any magic left. Even in the “real world,” Dr. Bennett can still tell Josephine is pregnant with a boy just by feeling her belly. Simply put, there’s magic everywhere whether simple or complex. The second reason is that it’s one of few films that features a voice over that works really well. Normally voice overs are cheap exposition delivery services, but here it serves a serious purpose. It doesn’t help that the voice over is done by Billy Crudup (the voice of the Mastercard commercials), but the story told above the noise of the screen becomes one of four storytellers in the movie. The first is Edward Bloom, the master storyteller. The second is the pairing of Tim Burton and John August, the director and screenwriter respectively. The third is Will Bloom as the narrator (Ed Bloom even gets to narrate a few stories within the story), giving all the necessary details that need to be included from a person who has lived through the entire tale, and the fourth is Will Bloom as he becomes the storyteller his father knows him to be by the end of the movie – carrying on the storytelling legacy of the family.
Speaking of Crudup, the acting is superb in this thing. Crudup plays a difficult role as a closed-off personality who eventually has to share his emotions, and he does it with ease. Of course, the main stars of the movie are Ewan MacGregor as young Edward Bloom and Albert Finney as old Edward Bloom. Both play on an endless well of toothy grins that force everyone to like them, yet Finney gets to play around more with the crankiness of an old man. Still, even as he’s dying, he showcases little except a grand sense of humor about life and the adventures he’s had. Jessica Lange and Marion Cotillard also nail down their parts as strong women who have married obstinate, child-like men. And finally, throughout the course of Ed Bloom’s life he meets so many side characters played by strong actors – Steve Buscemi, Helena Bonham Carter, Danny DeVito, Alison Lohman, Missi Pyle, Deep Roy, Ada and Arlene Tai – that it becomes clear that the movie would be nothing without their performances.
As for the look of the film, it might as well be retitled Tim Burton Discovers Primary Colors. The world is vibrant and surreal to match the themes of the film, and Burton plays around with bright colors like a child who has found a new toy he didn’t even know existed. The dark parts like the witch’s house (and, yes, that’s Miley Cyrus you see as a member of the gang) are still moody and stylized, but it’s moments like the one where Edward fills a field with thousands of daffodils to win over Sandra that really stand out.
The strength of the storytelling aspect comes from John August’s screenplay. It’s beautiful, unapologetic about being hopelessly romantic and it shares true humanity with a touch of the unreal instead of relying on fantasy elements to pull it through. Like most Movies We Love, the thing is endlessly quotable:
- There’s a time when a man needs to fight and a time when he needs to accept that his destiny is lost, the ship has sailed, and that only a fool will continue. The truth is, I’ve always been a fool.
- I know better than to argue romance with a French woman.
- A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories.
- You don’t know me, but my name is Edward Bloom and I love you.
- You’re like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined. Just as charming and just as fake.
- There are some fish that cannot be caught. It’s not that they’re faster or stronger than other fish – they’re just touched by something extra.
On top of all this lighthearted brilliance, Big Fish is something of a superhero story. Ed Bloom’s super power is that he knows how he’s going to die so that he knows he can survive everything else. It gives him a sort of permission to live life on his own terms in a way that most people dream of. You could also make the case that his super power is being completely full of shit, but living the life he wants to lead comes from no one else but himself. It’s an important lesson to learn. One that’s delivered in the most beautiful way possible.
The Moment We Fell in Love
What to choose….what to choose….Edward proposing to Sandra in a field of flowers? Them lying together in a bathtub to say goodbye to one another? The first time Edward lays eyes on Spectre? Robbing the bank with Norther Winslow? Several to choose from, but since I started this piece with crying, I might as well end it that way.
The best scene in the whole movie comes at the end – when Will carries his father into the forest clearing and all of his friends are standing there to see him off. A band plays loud happy music, and the people cheer, and there’s not a sad face among the crowd. It’s a moment that culminates with Will becoming a man, his realizing why his father told his stories and the torch being handed over to a new father to fill his son’s head full of nonsense only to have him turn out perfectly fine. We have fallen in love with this character over the course of the film, and now we find ourselves crying and laughing to see him go. Living and dying just how he wanted to – and turning into a really big fish.
Ultimately it is the fantasy layer on top of our real world that makes this story better than most. It taps in to a very real desire that most have – the need for something more exciting in our lives, a true escapism. But it also taps into something that’s present in our lives: the magic of finding love, the importance of our connections to our families, the small adventures that we all have at certain points in our lives. Those stories we tell. It’s those shared experiences and the fact that the movie refuses to consider them ordinary that makes me want to re-watch it time and time again.
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