After returning home to be at his dying father's bedside, Will Bloom is once again forced to listen to the tall tales of his larger-than-life dad that plagued his youth. Frustrated by the barriers these fanciful yarns put in their relationship, Will tries to uncover the facts behind the fiction.
From scissorhanded misfits to headless horsemen via Z-grade filmmakers... if any undercurrent has coursed through Tim Burton's work, it is that real life is frankly not good enough and needs embellishing. It is something of a surprise, therefore, that it took the filmmaker until his 11th effort to make this conceit explicit.
In the novel Big Fish by Daniel Wallace, Burton has found a vehicle to express his fascination with the fantastical and its relationship to reality. Whimsical without being twee, freewheeling without being messy, moving without being schmaltzy, Big Fish aligns Burton's visual virtuosity and offbeat sensibility to a story that, for once, has more than one foot in the real world. It's a charming piece of witty, warm-hearted filmmaking. After the soulless Planet Of The Apes, Burton has scaled down the logistics but broadened the thematic and emotional scope, crafting a tale that feels grandiose yet homespun. Part-Baron Munchausen, part-Forrest Gump, the approach of visualising the exaggerated tales of a dying man relayed to his dubious adult son echoes the storytelling traditions of Americana, yet recasts it in Burton's unique tone of voice.
In Bloom's fantastical universe, Burton is on familiar territory - a sleepy '50s-looking town recalls Edward Scissorhands, a spider-filled forest hints at Sleepy Hollow - serving up vignettes that, if occasionally rambling and unfocused, are marked with boundless visual imagination that hints at the darker currents in wholesome Americana. Bloom's fanciful adventures with conjoined Korean cabaret singers, a werewolf and a misunderstood giant are suffused with an affection for the bizarre, tapping into an affinity with the outsider that is a touchstone in Burton's work. Moreover, Big Fish is also Burton's funniest film in ages. From Edward's birth, shooting between his mother's legs and down a hospital corridor, to his run in with the kung fu fighting Korean military, Burton delivers a steady stream of laugh-out-loud absurdity.
A bi-product of this is that the characters sometimes feel more like ciphers than rounded individuals. That said, McGregor gives young Edward a winning amiability and maximum sparkle, his extravagant courtship of wife-to-be Susan (Alison Lohman plays a young Jessica Lange with creepy accuracy) - involving skywriting planes and an impromptu field of daffodils - emerging as intoxicatingly sweet. Finney inhabits rather than reveals his bigger-than-life figure.
Surrounding the main players, Burton has assembled a starry-ish line-up that enriches the tapestry without ever feeling like stunt cameos. Danny DeVito is a conniving circus ringleader; Helena Bonham Carter takes a dual role, including a one-eyed witch who looks bizarrely like Faye Dunaway; and Steve Buscemi relishes a turn as a small-town poet-turned-bank robber-turned-Wall Street baron.
Ultimately, Big Fish is much more than a compendium of Timbo's greatest hits. For the first time since Ed Wood, Burton has transcended his hermetically-sealed world and connected with wider concerns. He has moving things to say about kids accepting their parents' foibles and how emotional truths sometimes supersede factual veracity. In anchoring the whimsy to something more heartfelt, Burton is greatly aided by Billy Crudup, who underplays potentially cringeworthy bedside scenes with his dying dad. If the ending muddles its message, it'll take a hard heart not to feel touched come the close of Bloom's picaresque adventures. And that's no lie.
Funny and feel-good with strains of sadness and regret around the edges, Big Fish is an entertaining synthesis of Burton's trademark quirkiness and a touching family drama.