With “Big Fish,” Tim Burton Told His Last, Greatest Tall Tale
Tim Burton's last great film was a mythic tall tale that anchored his dark whimsy in something more sentimental and moving.
March 16, 2019

Every month, we at The Spool select one Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. With Tim Burton’s Dumbo coming out in just a few weeks, we’ve chosen to dedicate March to Hot Topic’s favored son, and his intriguing, singular body of work.


Looking back over Tim Burton’s career, it becomes all too easy to imagine him more for what he has become than the whole of his work. Over the past decade, his films seem to have shifted from indie oddities to commercially marketable weirdness. Nowadays, you expect the bold colors, the over-the-top CGI, Johnny Depp attempting to remember how to play someone other than Jack Sparrow. But what seems to have been left behind is the emotion that powered so much of his pre-millennium work. Granted, Frankenweenie had its moments and Big Eyes was at least an attempt to break from his new-found name brand, but the last film sitting at the edge of classic Burton and marketable Burton is 2003’s Big Fish.

In the lead up to Big Fish, Burton had not been having the best of luck. He was coming up on a decade since his last commercial and critical hit, Ed Wood. He had followed up his Golden Globe-nominated film with the camptastic Mars Attacks! and the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Sleepy Hollow. However, neither had reached the heights of his late ‘80s successes. And then came what could be considered his first real cinematic mistake: Planet of the Apes. The 2001 remake was long, chock full of callbacks to the original film (such as Charlton Heston playing a damn dirty ape), and featured a twist ending that didn’t even begin to make sense. The film spawned a swarm audience pushback, critical ridicule, and one of the more random beefs of Kevin Smith’s career. Burton’s career was at a low point and he answered his recent failure with a return emotion driven magical realism.

Adapted from Daniel Wallace’s debut novel, Big Fish tells the story of Ed Bloom, Sr. (played in young and old versions by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, respectively). Ed has lived an unbelievable life that he has enshrined in his multitude of tall tales that he tells at any moment he possibly can. Much to the chagrin of his son Ed, Jr. (Billy Crudup), he doesn’t seem to know when to turn off the urge to spin his yarns. So much so, that when Ed, Sr. tells the story of the first time he caught a legendary local fish at Ed, Jr.’s wedding, the younger Ed breaks off all communication with his father for three years. The silence is only broken when his mother Sandra (Jessica Lange) calls to tell Ed, Jr. that his father is on the verge of death.

Once Junior returns to America with his wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard, in her first English film role), the story breaks off into two different paths: Junior’s path based solely in reality, and Ed, Sr.’s set in his well-honed stories that he tells to Josephine. Based on how much time is spent in the story world, it is very clear which realm Burton prefers to stay within. He portrays the normal world with great skill, to be sure, but the film bursts with energy whenever he sends young Ed Bloom into the world of his made-up dreams. Ed’s first visit to the Town of Spectre, a picturesque Alabama burg, feels so welcoming and darling – it feels like the water fountains are all full of sweet tea and honeysuckle just swims through the air. Despite that, there’s a subtle feeling that there’s something not quite right about the place. It just might be the Billy Redden cameo (most famously known as the dueling banjo kid in Deliverance), but the town reeks of an oncoming Hansel & Gretel style trap. Which, it isn’t. At least not in the way you expect.

That’s the real skill of Big Fish: the film subverts your expectations in bizarrely mundane, but profound ways. Spectre isn’t heaven or hell, or some kind of murder town. It’s just a really nice place that’s easy to get stuck in and allow your skills to stagnate. To stay a big fish in a little pond forever.

This is enforced further when young Ed meets the younger version of his wife-to-be (Alison Lohman) – he wins her heart not by physically fighting for it, but by listening to what she wants and needs. While Ed’s life may be told in exaggerations, the simple lesson is always most important.

That’s not to say Big Fish has aged perfectly. The early ‘00s still had a lot of “old-fashioned” Norman Rockwell-era ideas about gender which result in younger Ed’s courtship of Sandra feeling a lot creepier than obviously intended. There is quite a lot of Ed stalking Sandra with tokens of love, interrupting her life to remind her that he adores her, and generally refusing to back down when she says, “sorry, I’m already engaged.” Those five minutes of very uncomfortable “romance” in a film with otherwise wonderful things to say about life stick out far too much to be ignored completely.

Where Big Fish excels, however, is in McGregor’s charming, earnest performance. It’s entirely believable that this young version of Ed Bloom grows up into Albert Finney – supposedly, McGregor was signed on when producers discovered how similar the two looked at the same age, and it genuinely feels like a seamless choice. Finney holds that similar charm but transforms it more into that of a sweet old grandpa. It goes without saying that Finney (RIP) was one of the greatest actors of his generation, and he graces the screen with a heartbreaking skill. And then there’s Crudup, who saves all his best stuff for the final ten minutes of “I’m not crying you’re crying’ glory. (Is there anything more indie early ‘00s than an underrated, weepy-eyed Billy Crudup performance?) Sadly (and surprisingly), it’s Cotillard’s work that serves as the weak link; her English isn’t quite on par to her skills today, so some of her lines feel like she’s fighting just to get the words out. 

At this time in Burton’s career, Big Fish was precisely the story he needed to tell. It is a story about why we tell stories. Why we feel this inner need to embellish and even outright lie about our past deeds. That maybe it’s just in our nature because we innately prefer the more exciting story, even if we are pretty sure it’s false. Big Fish was Burton’s way of justifying his stories, past, present, and future. While they might not be for everyone, he knows they’re the only kinds of stories he wants to tell.

Big Fish Trailer