Sony // 2003 // 125 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // April 2nd, 2007
Did you hear about the big one that got away?
Prior to the release of Big Fish, Tim Burton had nearly sidelined himself with previous misses like Planet of the Apes and Sleepy Hollow. In danger of having rendered himself lost in regards to audiences' -- and fans' -- expectations, the eclectic director returned in 2003 with a film that seemed to be aimed at striking a middle ground with modern audiences, dotted with plenty of Burton whimsy but also anchored by a sort of pleasantness that harkened to The Princess Bride. It didn't fully feel like Burton -- not entirely, anyway. And so, upon its release, the question arose: is Tim Burton back, and can he still speak to his audience? The answer depends upon how amenable you are to a whopper of a tale that may not fess up in the final act.
Raised in heart of Alabama, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup, The Good Shepard) has grown up hearing a non-stop outpouring of his father's tall tales. Whether telling of confrontations with a witch, an unlikely alliance with a real-life giant, and a stint in a circus where he meets his wife, Ed Bloom (Albert Finney, Corpse Bride) tells of how he's seen and done it all -- and he tells it all of the time. Frustrated and ultimately estranged by his father's habit of gross exaggeration, Will relocates to Paris to become a journalist and begin a family of his own, his wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard, A Good Year) expecting their first child. But when Will learns his father is dying of cancer, he returns home to set things right between the two and, with luck, learn the truth behind the man's oeuvre of big fish stories.
Without delay, I'll say that this film confounded me. Upon viewing it, I determined Big Fish had betrayed its metaphoric meaning -- a tall tale that intends to amaze and enchant yet embodies a deeper "truth" behind it. I never found such truth; I could only puzzle, "well, is that all?" when all was said and done. I walked away feeling gypped, as if the magician who promised to expose his method only ran a final sleight of hand to distract and dissatisfy me.
At the outset, it was clear to me this was a film that promised to reveal the eternal mystery inherent to the relationship between fathers and sons. Fathers are often larger than life in young boys' eyes; they're heroes and serve as the cornerstone of a healthy upbringing. Will Bloom, Burton shows us, is no longer so enchanted by his father's exploits, having heard them told, word for word, in every collective setting possible, be it a Boy Scout campfire or Will's own wedding. Expectedly, disappointment sets in and doubt emerges within Will, likely wondering if he had foolishly misplaced his admiration, and hurt by the notion that his father may have been a big windbag for all these years. Yes, that would hurt mightily; the disenchantment being difficult to bear internally while the outward embarrassment equally becomes unmanageable (Will embarrassed for himself and also for the sake of his unaware father). Then tragedy strikes, as it typically does in such situations, and yesterday's forever is suddenly replaced with an insensitive timetable that cannot be altered, bargained with, or ignored. And here lay the greatest opportunity for this unique take on a time-tested storyline: Burton could dig into the darkest and most unpredictable corner of human nature and nurture, one never truly tapped in his previous films. I was all attention until I began to realize that he would only dance around the matter by way of nifty composite shots and oddball characterizations. There was more at work within the narrative fabric here, but Burton stammered and -- I'm sorry to proclaim -- chickened out when it came time to confront the facts. Like a naughty game of I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours, Burton turned tail and ran when it was his turn to pony up.
In both the original novel by Daniel Wallace and (certainly) Burton's own psyche -- that of the boy-man director who clearly still lives in his childhood bedroom, it's apparent that something real drives this make-believe boasting by Ed Bloom, flamboyantly reenacted by Ewan McGregor (The Island) as the younger Ed. Knowing that Burton prefers flights of fancy, and delights in dipping his toe into the darker places of the boyhood realm, Big Fish was poised to help us understand how some boys can successfully reconcile themselves to the reality that their father might not be the hero they always thought -- and hoped -- he was. Of course, this sort of self-admission often prompts a subsequent epiphany that offers sudden clarity to the words and ways of an enigmatic father. In the case of this story, though, as frustrated as Will had become with his father's dodging of reality, he still desperately needed to understand the real meaning behind his father's tall tales -- was it something Will had done, or was it a guarded façade that masked his father's fear, guilt, or sense of inadequacy and failure? Burton seems afraid to tread in this realm of unbridled emotion and uneasy vulnerability. We get a pretty picture show, no doubt; but it ultimately reads to me as a deep premise that is given the fantasy resolve in the end. For all of Will's angst and anxiety previously displayed, will such a shoulder shrug of an explanation really suffice? I thought he deserved more.
This new Blu-ray release from Sony delivers Big Fish in stunning fashion, as trumped up as one of Edward's fishy fables. The image is presented in a 1080p / MPEG-2 transfer that's highly detailed and richly colored most of the time. Understand the film straddles two parallel worlds, that of Will tending to his father in the final days (with appropriate dark lighting and indiscriminate settings) contrasted with the world of Edward's amazing exploits (full of splash, dazzle, and brightness). The transfer manages both views competently and only occasionally allows some visible grain to seep in. Otherwise, this is like two transfers in one, with the image maintaining a stable tone and texture for each world as it flip-flops between the two.
On the audio side, this Blu-ray also delivers on its promise by offering a confident PCM 5.1 Uncompressed track, one that offers just as much definition, audibly, as the film exudes visually. Dialog is key and it remains clear and clean in all settings, but surrounds get called into duty to fill out Edward's storybook world. Danny Elfman's score is well represented, maintaining proper presence without upstaging the action.
As for extras, it's rather confusing why Sony quickly wrapped this Blu-ray in newspaper and threw it at us over the counter. Despite the fact that previous standard definition DVDs included a sizable catch of bonus features, this Blu-ray edition only includes one, the audio commentary by Tim Burton (egged on by Burton on Burton editor Mark Salisbury). Thanks to Salisbury's presence and prodding, this is actually one of the better Burton tracks, one that isn't woefully silent like others you may have experienced. Strangely, all the other featurettes and goodies found on the SD releases seemed to escape the Blu-ray net.
I recognize that Big Fish is essentially a big fable, a visual storybook to delight and playfully distract audiences. Who better than Burton to serve as storyteller? He's a proven success, a deft and deliberate artist who uses just the right mix of dark and light colors on his palette, always with an added splash of dramatic contrast to bring the work to life in an unusual yet satisfying manner. No doubt, this film bears the master's blend of recognizable elements, although he has pushed away his chilly gunmetal grays and brooding cobalt blues in deference to an overabundance of primary dominance. Visually, the film has the elemental mood pieces that remind us of Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, and a bit of Beetlejuice, but the base color on the canvas looks store-bought, a pre-established hue that treats the applied colors as discordant appliqués, disappointingly obscuring the final composition. It's obvious the picture was intended to be a comeback for Burton, and it certainly garnered plenty of praise and profit, but there's a pestering feeling that this is exactly as it was intended -- a prefabricated success; a tall tale that, in its execution, is just as distractingly embellished as Edward's stories without truly coming clean with the audience before its time is through. Perhaps others see it differently, but to my eye, this feels much too commercially contrived, fashioned for a quick and easy sale.
For me, Big Fish is a big miscalculation from a director who clearly has the subject matter close to heart, yet is repressing an honest expression of his own tangled reality. While it's reasonable and preferable that individuals work such deeply personal matters out in their own way, here it feels like a tease in that it elects to take the quick and easy out in the final reel rather than wrangle the complications of life, death, expectations, and enlightenment. On Blu-ray, it's a fine looking and sounding disc and, despite the many missing extras, it's a certain improvement over SD releases. If you have found Big Fish to be a new-age classic for your tastes, then you certainly won't be disappointed by a return to the pond.
While this court appreciates the testimony provided by the defendant, it proclaims that some key testimony has been purposefully omitted. Unfortunately, this would have been the testimony that would have unmistakably exonerated Big Fish from any and all charges. As it stands, this court can only declare the defendant 'guilty' due to its incompletely presented case.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.76:1 Non-Anamorphic
* 2.76:1 Non-Anamorphic
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director's Commentary