Nice enough: No hooks in Big Fish
Tall tales are Tim Burton's stock in trade, so a movie about tall tales isn't too big a departure as he tries to bounce back from Planet of the Apes by showing his two hands can handle a whopper.
The tall tales are not the problem in Big Fish, although some are more appealing than others; it's reality that's Burton's short suit, even if you accept his terms that it's only relative.
Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is dying, and his son Will (Billy Crudup), who's about to have a son of his own, realizes he doesn't know his father. A traveling salesman, Bloom wasn't around much when Will was growing up, and when he was, he spun yarns with very little truth in them.
Will warns us at the outset that when talking about his father, "it's very hard to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. It doesn't make sense, and most of it never happened."
We see the stories happening, with Ewan McGregor playing the young Edward and Alison Lohman as Sandra, the only woman he ever loved. (Jessica Lange plays her later in life.) With locations including a witch's house, a circus, a giant's cave, a haunted path, and the town of Spectre, which is soft enough for the citizens to walk barefoot, the movie is a theme park waiting to open.
Young Edward is brave enough to talk to a Witch (Helena Bonham Carter) his friends are afraid of and to look in her glass eye to see how he'll die. With that knowledge, he becomes even more fearless because knowing what will kill him keeps him from fearing the things that won't.
They include a Giant (Matthew McGrory) who menaces his hometown of Ashton, Alabama, until Edward persuades him to leave and take him along. The Witch's parting advice to Edward: "The biggest fish in the river gets that way by never being caught."
Soon they come to a circus run by Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito), who tells Edward, "You were a big fish in a small pond, but this here's the ocean."
Had enough "big fish" metaphors yet? You ain't heard the half of it. The movie begins with Edward's favorite story, about how he used his wedding ring to catch "The Beast," the biggest fish in the Ashton River, the day Will was born. Will knows this isn't true, that his father was in Wichita that day, but the fact is treated as a revelation late in the film.
We also get clues that Edward may be a little bit amphibious, but it's not clear whether this is meant as fantasy or reality.
Will first spies Sandra at the circus but has to work for Calloway for free for three years before he can see her again. In the meantime, he discovers the town of Spectre, where he's expected, just not yet.
There's a lot of buildup to Edward's death, which he promises will be a "surprise ending." The surprise isn't so much how it happens but who tells the story (and the fact that it's not really death at all). It's a nice story but leaves the funeral scene that follows superfluous and anticlimactic.
Finney doesn't have a whole lot to do, and Lange far less. McGregor carries most of the movie, coasting on charm.
There are some decent effects, but Big Fish is competing with Lord of the Rings in the areas of spiders, prehensile trees, and a gold ring, and with Finding Nemo when it comes to fish. There's no contest.
The message I caught from Big Fish is that the world can't survive on dreams, but things might be better if it tried to. That's a nice thought. It's a nice movie, but far from a great one.