Review by Gene
Inside the hardened exterior of every tough guy lies a soft spot that rarely if ever comes out. For many men this soft spot is revealed at the birth of their first child, the giving away of their daughter in marriage, or any number of life’s precious or tragic moments. For others, like myself, there are certain movies that bring it out like nothing else can. Big Fish is one of my “big softy” movies, and I imagine I’m not alone. The last three weeks of reviews here have given you dinosaur attacks, tragedies of war and edge of your seat drama. So, I thought it would be nice to dial it back a bit and sit through a film that will make you smile throughout, laugh intermittently, and tear up occasionally.
Big Fish is a 2003 Tim Burton release starring Albert Finney as an aged Edward Bloom, and Ewan McGregor as young Edward Bloom seen primarily in flashbacks. The two are cast well in these roles and tell their stories in a narrating fashion. They do so with an unmistakable southern twang, Edward being from Alabama, which adds a great touch of personalization to the film. Burton has certainly released some gems in his years, but for my money this is just about his best film not involving Johnny Depp. Ewan McGregor is coming into stardom when this film is released, having just done two of the latest installments of Star Wars as well as Black Hawk Down. And Albert Finney, had it not been for the likes of Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Sam Elliot, might be the most recognizable narrating voice of our time.
Big Fish is a story about fantastic stories. The kind your dad or grandpa may have told in which you are somehow forced to ask the very question which necessitates the telling of an amazing tale. The kind of stories which must begin with, “ya know, when I was your age…”. We are given a heavy dose of reminiscence in Big Fish, and there is just enough nostalgia mixed into it without over-doing it. Wonderful attempts are made to convey these stories as a child might hear them for the first time and make the viewer completely forget about the backdrop of the movie and the reason these stories are being re-visited. There are many times I wish that I had heard some of the great stories from the Bible when I was a child. David v Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea, Daniel in the Lion’s den. Having not come to faith in Jesus until I was 22 and in college, my adult mind tries to examine what God meant to teach in these stories and how to apply that to my life, rather than soaking in and appreciating the purely awesome God that we have, as a child would.
Billy Crudup (Watchmen, The Good Shepherd) stars as Will Bloom, only son of Edward Bloom. Will and Edward have a falling out early in the film and are only brought together again by the news of Edward’s failing health. Upon thinking back on the stories his father has told him growing up, Will realizes he doesn’t actually know who his father is. How many of these incredible stories about this man are true? Is this image that he has created of his father actually real? This is quite a sad revelation, but it is exactly the thing you forget about when Edward begins telling of another fantastic adventure of days gone by. I think that is precisely what Burton was going for. Reminding us of how great stories have the pleasant ability to distract us, if only for a short time, from some of the harsh realities of life.
There are plenty of moments in this film that will no doubt hit home to just about any viewer. I often imagined myself in Edward’s shoes as he recounts another great adventure. But there are also moments for the pragmatist in us all. Will Bloom does not see his father as a great story teller or a warm and charming man as everyone else seems to. To Will, his father is a liar who never reveals his true self and has somehow convinced everybody that it’s okay because hey, everyone loves a good story. In one confrontation, Will tells his father that he hasn’t been honest with him, he hasn’t been real, hasn’t been himself. “I’ve been nothin’ but myself since the day I was born, and if you can’t see that it’s your failin’, not mine”, Edward stoutly replies. Even when confronted with the obvious invention of specific events in his life, Edward still insists that he can only be who he is. Edward and Will’s relationship is very strained and full of distrust. The father-son relationship is perhaps the most formidable of any on young boys and, as we see with Will and Edward, can have a far-reaching and hardening impact. There’s a great line from Fight Club where Tyler Durdin says, “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”. There is a lot of truth in that. Whether it be bailing all-together, or building a false image of yourself and grandiose expectations of your son, a father’s impact on their son can be immeasurably good or bad. As a father myself, it’s easy to lose track of this fact in the day-to-day, but it is something which deserves to be kept at the forefront of our minds.
There is one line in particular from this film that I adore. To serve as a lead-in to yet another incredible tale, Edward Bloom says, “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 only a fool would continue. Truth is… I’ve always been a fool.” I read the book Wild at Heart a few years ago and it really resonated with me. That book, along with this quote, really touch on the premise that men greatly desire for that fighter side in them to come out. Or just be given an opportunity to come out! I’m not talking about picking fights with people, I’m talking about the chance to stand up for what’s right. To have some righteous indignation delivered upon the unjust at your hands! Okay, maybe that’s a bit overboard. However, in an age when God is most quickly described as love or forgiveness (which He is of course), we forget that God is also a warrior (Exodus 15:3), that He is mighty (Job 36:5) and His Word is as a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). The warrior spirit in many men is often told to calm down, sit still, stay in line, mind your manners and don’t rock the boat. We would do well to listen to that God-given spirit embedded in us and mind Edward’s words… there’s a time when a man needs to fight.
I often find myself trying to put movies into categories. This movie is a comedy, that movie is an animated family film, that one is a war-drama, etc. Big Fish is plain and simply a good and entertaining story. I’ve seen some sites classify it as a fable, and I suppose that is probably the most accurate. When I think of a fable I think of a story where far-fetched circumstances meet incredible people and result in unbelievable outcomes. That’s a pretty good description of Big Fish. Even the larger story being told, Will’s very real dealings with his dying father who insists on dwelling in his very unreal stories, has an amazing and heartfelt conclusion that is sure to tug at your heart. There are many other biblical or spiritual aspects to this film. Forgiveness of wrongs done upon you, the healing power of restitution, loyalty to the one who you vowed your life to… I hope you’re able to key on these things and let them encourage you as this movie has me.
My Rating: 4/5
As expected with nearly any Tim Burton film, the cinematography in Big Fish is terrific. It doesn’t pop off the screen as many of his other films, but it fits this movie just right. Contrast in color is used in the flashbacks to amplify the belief that you are peering back at a very special event. More dull, dim and “realistic” tones are employed to bring you back down to earth and, indeed, reality. There’s an element of corny-ness in it that at times feels misplaced or inappropriate. You may also feel like there are too many flashbacks or that they are distracting from Will’s dealing with his father dying. It’s a bit of a risk to carry that theme through an entire movie, but I think Burton comes very close to pulling it off perfectly.
You may well sit through this movie and think it’s quite ordinary. This movie really hit home for me and I’d imagine even if you can’t relate to any of it you can appreciate fantastic stories told on the backdrop, and almost in spite of a very strained relationship between a father and a son. I highly recommend Big Fish.
Edward Bloom(old): “You spend years trying to corrupt or mislead this child, fill his head with nonsense, and still they turn out perfectly fine.”
Josephine Bloom: “Is this another tall tale?” Edward Bloom(old): “Well, it isn’t a short one.”
Edward Bloom(young): “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.”
Will Bloom: “You’re like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined – just as charming, and just as fake.”