Big Fish (2003)
Directed by Tim Burton

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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While he is being visited by his estranged son Will, a dying man, Ed Bloom, relates various fanciful stories to his daughter-in-law. In these tales, the viewer is shown Ed's peculiar childhood, the glories of his adolescence, his wartime adventures, and his secret activities while working as a travelling salesman. We thus learn how he saved his town from a giant, how he won the heart of his wife, how a witch showed him the way he would die, and how he became the indentured servant of a lycanthropic circus owner who paid him with morsels of information about the girl he loved, whose family the circus owner knew. We also see Ed's encounters with mermaids, conjoined twins, a bank robber, a giant catfish, and the inhabitants of a secret idyllic town.

Although it is far from being the director's best work, Tim Burton's Big Fish is a frequently inventive and generally engaging film.

The quality of the movie's narrative, sadly, is not consistent. The tales Ed tells are far more interesting than is the story in which they are framed. Almost all of the former are charming and imaginative. Some borrow themes from folklore. Others are simple tall tales, and still others are humorous, even satirical. Hardly one of them fails to be enjoyable. The story in which they are framed, however, is maudlin and predictable. Ed's son Will dislikes his father because of the old man's love for telling his stories, which the son perceives as lies. Inevitably, however, Will comes to cherish his father, and both he and the viewer learn that there is real beauty to be found in a life lived with a rich imagination, although this point is undercut by the revelation that the stories are not as much lies as Will thinks they are.

The framing story's painful sentimentality and lack of inspiration are not, sadly, the movie's only weaknesses. Big Fish is Burton's least visually striking work since Pee-wee's Big Adventure. A few of the stories Ed tells are infused with some visual flare, but, more often than not, they are presented in a manner that is simply forgettable. In fact, while the movie may, from time to time, charm the viewer, it is never likely to enthrall him with its images.

Whatever its faults, Big Fish is generally well acted. Both Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor, who, respectively, play Ed when he is the narrator in the movie's present and when he is a character in his own stories, give solid performances. The two lead actors, and most of the other cast members as well, approach their roles with such an abundance of energy and so much enthusiasm that they suffuse the movie with a vibrant, innocent life that is almost certain to captivate the viewer.

Although Big Fish could have been a much better movie and is, consequently, somewhat disappointing, it is still better than are the majority of films being made and is almost always genuinely enjoyable.

Review by Keith Allen

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