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Big Fish

by Dave Gourdoux

Ewan McGregor in "Big Fish"
You can't explain what happens in a great Tim Burton movie and expect it to make sense. From Pee Wee's Big Adventure to Beetlejuice to Edward Scissorhands to Big Fish,  no other director I can think of (except for maybe Fellini) has been as successful in creating his own unique vision of a world that makes perfect sense where no sense is to be found, for at least those couple of hours while it is on the screen. But for all of Burton's famous imaginative surrealism, to me his real strength is his respect and his gift for narrative storytelling.  In this essay, I will discuss two of Burton's best films (Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994) in which he explores the themes of storytelling versus the storyteller and the relationship between father and son, along with 2003's Big Fish, which quickly becomes his definitive statement on these themes.

Make no mistake about it; despite an output that in recent years has been rather inconsistent, Burton deserves to be recognized as a giant of late 20th and early 21st century cinema. Critics point to his background in animation and the role it plays in the unique look and feel of his films (Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks) but to me this unfairly labels Burton as just a quirky, artsy visual director.  While there is no denying the impact his animator sensibilities have on his films, when one considers his work in full, a complete and brilliant film artist that uses all of the elements of cinema to create an intensely personal body of work emerges. His command of narrative, his grasp of nuance and characters, and his own unique perspective put him on a level with some of the greatest directors ever, and if you look closely, you can see his influence on other current great directors, such as Christopher Nolan and David Fincher.

Burton's best films are a unique combination of surrealism and traditional narrative storytelling.  His first great film, Edward Scissorhands (1990), is the best example of this. The character of Scissorhands and the exaggerated and bizarre suburbia Burton creates make for a perfect vehicle for sarcastic comedy and commentary, which Burton pursues to hilarious effect.  But in the process, he also does something subversive and daring, and he has the talent and the intestinal fortitude to make it work. He uses the same characters and distorted sets that deliver the laughs to tell the story of a tortured and misunderstood artist who can't fit in with this world. Burton's ability to make us identify with an unfinished, mechanical human being with scissors instead of hands is the intensely personal work of a true artist, and  reveals a romanticism that wasn't evident in his first two films (Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice), where he was content to use surrealism to extract laughs from his audience. Edward Scissorhands is the first film where Burton demonstrated his impressive storytelling skills.

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands
Note that the story in Edward Scissorhands is told by a grandmother to her young grandchildren. This is the first example of the storytelling motif to be found in Burton's work.  There is also a father and son dynamic present, here seen as loving and tragic, with Vincent Price as the inventor who is Edward's creator / father, dying before finishing Edward.

The second Burton masterpiece to explore these themes is Ed Wood, his 1994 biography of the man who is generally considered the worst director in the history of film.  Wood's awful movies, such as Glen or Glenda and the famously horrible Plan Nine From Outer Space are frequent objects of sarcasm, satire, and ridicule, and they are so bad they have earned their own dubious place in pop culture. While recognizing the undeniable awfulness of these films, Burton also manages to see in his characterization of Wood a man bitten by the storytelling bug.  As Burton, and Johnny Depp as Wood, portray him, Wood's indefatigable passion for film making and storytelling is betrayed only by his lack of talent.  But that doesn't matter; in Wood, Burton sees a kindred spirit, an outsider with a manic love of creating. It's this passion and the need to create that matters, Burton says, more than any artistic talent. The energy and honesty that go into the creation of a work of art are more important than the resulting creation.The film ends up being a surprisingly touching and sincere tribute to a man who aimed high and failed miserably. It is a story about storytelling, and one of the unlikeliest and most clearly articulated triumphs about the pure joy of self expression.

Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi and Johnny Depp as Ed Wood
Ed Wood doesn't have any of the surrealism of most Burton films. It is the most conventionally told of Burton's films, a wise choice given that Wood was such a bizarre character and his story so strange. But that doesn't diminish the brilliance Burton brings to the storytelling. The choices he makes in telling Wood's story reveal a master's command of narrative and characterization.

The father and son motif is present again in Ed Wood, in the form of the relationship between Wood and Martin Landau as the aging Bela Lugosi.  Landau's performance as the old, drug-addicted Lugosi is one of the great performances in the history of film, and the scenes with Depp and Landau together are remarkable. Legosi, who at one time was one of the world's biggest stars working with great directors, is portrayed as gentle and kind and patient with the incredibly inept and incompetent Depp/Wood, and the affection that develops between them is mutual and touching. When Lugosi dies while filming Plan B From Outer Space, there is a very touching moment when Wood watches a scene he shot with Lugosi picking a flower. Burton's genius is that he's able to take this nondescript scene that Wood shot and fill it with such powerful emotion and pathos that we can't help but be moved by it.

In Big Fish, Burton pushes these themes to the front and explores them in depth.  Big Fish is the story of the relationship between Edward Bloom, an aging teller of tall tales who is dying of cancer, and his son, Will (Billy Crudup), a twenty-eight year old journalist who is desperately trying to learn who his father really is before he dies.  It's important to note that both men are storytellers; Edward the teller of fantastic, imaginative stories involving witches, giants, circuses, conjoined twin singers and dancers, magical and secret small towns hidden from the rest of the world, while Will earns his living telling stories constrained by facts and objectivity.

The film is structured with Will and his new wife visiting his parents (portrayed in the film's present by Albert Finney and Jessica Lange).  Will sees the visit as his last chance to cut behind what he perceives to be the bullshit of Edward's tall tales and learn who his father really was; Edward is adamant that the story teller he's always been is the truest and most honest representation of his actual self. The film then tells, in flashbacks, with Ewan McGregor and Allison Lohman as young Edward and his wife Sandra, the stories of Edward's life as told by Edward.

Time stands still as Edward meets Sandra (Allison Lohman)
The similarities between Ewan McGregor's performance as young Edward Bloom in Big Fish and Johnny Depp in the title role of Ed Wood are striking. Both are open and innocent, both are full of life, and both characters portray an infectious enthusiasm.  In short, both characters are alive, infected with the same joy and passion for storytelling, both eager to participate in a world of their own making.

The performances in Big Fish are first rate, especially Finney and Lange as two true soul mates. Crudup is very good in what is a challenging role - in the hands of a different actor, it would be easy for the character to disappear in the large shadow cast by Finney's portrayal of Edward. There are wonderful supporting performances by an all-star cast of great character actors including Steve Buscemi, Danny Devito, and the real life Mrs. Burton, Helena Bonham Carter. Folk music fans might recognize singer songwriter Loudon Wainwright III in a small part as the mayor of the mystical town of Spectre.

As the film goes on, Will begins to appreciate his father's stories, and begins to recognize them for what they really are: the truest representation of who Edward was and is. Will learns that whatever factual truth there may or may not be in Edward's stories, the ultimate truth of Edward's identity is that of storyteller. Will comes to understand what Burton understood about Ed Wood - the storyteller and the act of storytelling are more important than the story, and in the end, the storyteller becomes the stories he told.

The film ends with Will and Edward alone in the hospital as Edward is about to die.  Edward looks to Will and asks, "How does it happen?"  Will then tells the last great tall story, a story about the two of them breaking out of the hospital and fleeing the authorities to make it to the river, where all of the characters from Edward's stories are waiting, in time for Will to return Edward to the river before he dies, where he is transformed into what he's always been, "a very big fish".  It's a wonderful story that ranks with any Edward ever told; "the story of my life", as Edward puts it, and through storytelling, the father and son are reconciled.

In Big Fish, even in the telling of the tallest of Edward's tall tales, Burton never resorts to his trademark stop motion animation or special effects wizardry (with the minor exception of the moment when Edward meets Sandra for the first time and time literally stands still).  It's pure and straightforward and brilliant storytelling, and as you watch it, you marvel at the imaginative simplicity and the emotional impact of what's presented on the screen.

The first time I saw Big Fish was in a theater with my son, Nick, who was 14 or 15 at the time.  It was an emotionally powerful experience on its own; watching the story of the father and son relationship while sitting beside my son made it even more moving.  I remember walking out together; we didn't say too much. I know on my part it was because I was moving one wrong muscle away from bawling my eyes out.  It remains perhaps the single most moving and powerful reaction I've ever had to a movie (with only that other great father-son film, DeSica's Bicycle Thieves, coming close). Big Fish is a master's masterpiece.