Sometimes, a renowned filmmaker does something that damages their status so irrevocably that it confuses everyone’s sense of what they do. Take Jack, for example: after that gooey Robin Williams-led offering, the increasingly compromised notion of talking about ‘the new Francis Ford Coppola’ became distinctly untenable. So, if the noisy, incoherent and boring Planet Of The Apes didn’t quite push Tim Burton over the edge, it certainly came perilously close. And it didn’t help that it followed the fun but incoherent Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow, in which Burton seemed to be paying homage to, well, Tim Burton. Big Fish, therefore, comes in the nick of time.
Edward Bloom (played in flashback by Ewan McGregor and as an old man in the present by Albert Finney) is the quintessential Burton protagonist. Firstly, there’s that first name (Bloom joining the ranks of the director’s other Edward’s – Scissorhands and Wood), but, more importantly, there’s that dreamer-quality; that ambivalent relationship Bloom has with the real world which he shares with Burton’s most heartfelt creations. Bloom has either lived a charmed, fantastical life or is the teller of some very tall tales. With his father on his death bed, it is left to Bloom’s son Will (Billy Crudup) to disentangle the fact from the fiction before the old man and his real life story disappear forever.
With its loving, rose-tinted eye for the ephemera of the American South and its central father-son relationship, Big Fish could easily have achieved Forrest Gump-ish levels of schmaltz. That it doesn’t is largely down to Burton’s eye for fantasy and fairy-tale, meaning that Bloom’s stories are not only amusingly absurd and beautifully realised, but invested with an unironic sense of conviction in their right to exist. The casting, too, is crucial: McGregor’s wide-eyed insouciance (not unlike his turn in Moulin Rouge) being the perfect compliment to Finney’s wiley old man, the latter balancing the energy of a lively imagination with the gravitas of a man who might actually believe his own myth. Around them, Jessica Lange disarms despite an underwritten role, while Danny DeVito and Helena Bonham Carter (as a circus ring-master and a witch respectively) lend emotional depth to their grotesques.
Big Fish isn’t perfect. Although partly inherent in the material, the film’s episodic nature inevitably leads to some wayward storytelling. And, whereas Burton seems to have found his feet again, longtime collaborator Danny Elfman loses his way, delivering an overtly sentimental score which lays it on thick just when it should be exercising restraint, and which possesses few of the signature touches that make his work so recognisable. But no matter: Big Fish sees Burton returning to territory he understands, while edging him closer than ever to an investment in a world beyond fantasy. There’s life in this teller of tall tales yet.