IMDB#224 Big Fish

Hey, sorry for the delay here at Kinematoscope. You see, I’m writing a novel. But since you can only write 33,000 words before your mind starts to implode, apparently, I’m coming back here to move us one further in the countdown.

Today, 2003’s Big Fish, a movie I saw most of in theaters at the time (I showed up late). Questions which may or may not be answered in this post- will Billy Crudup ever be more than a “Hey It’s That Guy!” level actor? Is it possible for Tim Burton to be predictably sanitary? Speaking of Tim Burton, does Helena Bonham Carter really need to be cast in everything he does? At a certain point, you have to think she’s taking other people’s jobs away.

Big Fish is a test case in a lot of ways, for your patience for storytellers of a certain variety (spoiler- I love it, but I’m a storyteller, see: novel-writing aspirations). Are you more likely to roll your eyes or crinkle them in a smile at tall tales, or does it depend on the company? Keep reading to see what I mean.

The Key Players:

Tim Burton, whimsical director of rock star level name recognition (and rock star hair, for that matter), has given us plenty of modern cult and critical favorites, many of them starring Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd) and many of them starring people that aren’t Johnny Depp (Batman, Batman Returns, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks!, and Big Fish). The only Tim Burton film I’ve ever been disappointed by is his regrettably scatterbrained remake of Planet Of The Apes, especially now that I’ve seen the original.


Billy Crudup stars, one of my favorite actors, and a dedicated chameleon along the lines of your Christian Bales of the world, just waiting to break into the bigtime. He pops up in the oddest roles and the oddest places, and it wasn’t until watching Big Fish I realized I love him in each one: he voices a character in Princess Monoke, perhaps my faovrite Miyazaki anime, he disappears into the role of a Shakespearian era transvestite actor in Stage Beauty, and he plays a tempermental rocker to perfection in Almost Famous. He might finally be a name that lots of people know with roles in two potential blockbusters this year- Watchmen (as the blue guy) and Public Enemies (as J. Edgar Hoover, another transvestite).

Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor play different parts of the role that’s the soul of the film. Finney has lost an Oscar five separate times, most recently for Erin Brockovich, and always brings the same deep voice and sleepy gravitas to his roles. McGregor is of course the biggest star present, and has split his career nearly equally between beloved artful projects (like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, or Moulin Rouge) and behemoth crowd pleasers (The Star Wars prequels, or the upcoming Angels & Demons).

The story is rounded out by a loaded cast, including Jessica Lange, Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Alison Lohman, Marion Cotillard, Danny Devito and even the guy that played Isaac on Sports Night (and the dude that played Roy on The Office). How’s that for a key players list? Probably the most crowded one ever.

The Story:

Crudup plays a man who’s father (Finney) is dying. He goes home to be with him, but spends the entire film wondering who his father really is, and trying to reconcile the fantastic stories that Finney tells with who the real man might be.

We then spend most of Big Fish flashing back to Finney’s version of his life story, in which he’s portrayed by a child actor and then McGregor and navigates a colorful world of witches, giants, werewolves, conjoined twins mixed with elements of his actually biography, like his son’s birth and his time at war in Korea.

The story within the story is remarkably complete for something that’s presented as a collection of anecdotes his father tells, but the point is that Finney has repeated them over and over until they form one tale, a nearly cyclical life story that he’s nearing the end of. But will father and son find the peace they’ve been missing?

The Artisticness:

Big Fish isn’t terribly subtle about telegraphing the question of where the storyteller ends and the story begins. But since that’s a theme that pretty obviously appeals to me anyway, I’m more than willing to let the Hallmark movie sort of antagnism between Finney and Crudup slide, especially the second time through.

If anything, the only problem I would list with Big Fish’s fantasy sequences is that they seem almost… affably familiar. It’s somewhat a product of the nature of Finney’s character, but the fairy tales are all a mixture of unique moments like the titular motif of fish that can appear like people in the moonlight and worn through elements of every other story ever.

But that’s not a big deal when the tales are told with McGregor’s winning bravado, or in Finney’s bass tone. My favorite story told is one that’s not even depicted: in one scene Crudup leading up to a point, says: “You know about icebergs, dad?” and Finney jumps in: “Do I? I saw an iceberg once. They were hauling it down to Texas for drinking water. They didn't count on there being an elephant frozen inside. The wooly kind. A mammoth.”

The visuals are much more colorful and bright a palette than you’d expect from Tim Burton, to be honest, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t fun to watch. It’s just sunnier than say, Sweeney Todd, or even his update of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, surprisingly.


The end, for some reason, seemed contrived when I watched it the first time, but hits me the more I watch it. Finney stubbornly refuses to admit that he’s telling anything but the truth, and Crudup discovers that not every element of his father’s biography is fabricated.

All along, Finney has claimed to know exactly what the moment of his death will be (claiming to have seen it in the eye of a witch as a child). But Finney has a stroke, and it’s up to his son, sitting as his bedside in the hospital, to tell him what it will be like, and in an abrupt reversal of character he emotionally tells Finney that he’s going to rush him to the river, and amidst a joyous send-off from all of the story’s members on the riverbank, he’ll drop him into the river where he’ll become a big fish, since he was always a big fish in a small pond.

Now, thirty seconds before this scene, Crudup’s character had finally heard the real, boring story of the night of his birth (Finney’s had involved fighting a giant catfish to get his wedding ring back), and declared that he liked the real life story better, even if it’s less interesting. So I still don’t really buy it.

But ultimately, I’d rather see the storyteller stubbornly win over the pragmatist anyway, so I like the ending with each repeat viewing. Plus, that’s how I’d wanna go, too.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher for me- I think that’s clear. I’m a firm believer in movies as escapism, and there’s no greater escapism than fairy tales.

The Legacy:

Let’s see: Danny Elfman’s original score garnered the lone Oscar nomination-I didn’t really take note of it, to be honest, but that’s probably because Elfman & Burton are like peanut butter & jelly at this point- still delicious, but it doesn’t occur to you to even think of different ingredients. The film and Finney also received Golden Globe nominations in the “Musical Or Comedy” categories, along with Elfman and an original song by Eddie Vedder.

Critical reception was largely positive- we’ll see how it ages. Most people I talk to seem to like it, but not love it in a crazy way. I almost think that if it wasn’t directed by a man known mostly for much more grandiose and specifically bizarre fantasies (maybe if earlier attached directors had stayed on, like Steven Spielberg or Stephen Daldry), that Big Fish would be more of a cult favorite than it is.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

After years of putting up a cynical, jokey front of wiseassery, I'm coming close to asking my friends for their reaction to my novel manuscript which is nothing but earnest romanticism (but in a dystopian future of sorts) in a lot of ways. So with nothing left to hide, let's go with when McGregor sees the girl of his dreams (Lohman) and time itself freezes:

Leftover Thoughts:

I also have a mini-collection of American folklore for a novel I want to write someday. So the odds were stacked in Big Fish’s favor from the start.

Guy that played Roy in The Office (David Denman) also plays a douchey boyfriend in Big Fish. I hope he doesn’t keep getting typecast.

Google Image searching for the poster and a still of the movie inadvertently confirmed that catfish can get that big, apparently. And that Reel Big Fish is still together, even though ska is dead.

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