The dark branches of the trees on the poster for “Big Fish” contrast against their light background. This sort of coupling has become a chromatic trademark for director Tim Burton. Beetlejuice’s suit, Edward Scissorhands’ face, the classic film look of “Ed Wood” – all black and white.
Unfortunately, these trees are the most Tim Burton thing about “Big Fish.” Burton buffs may leave the theater wondering why the kook behind such wonderfully weird movies like “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” exchanged his love of the darkly bizarre for the blandly normal. Had anybody else directed “Big Fish,” it might have garnered kinder reviews. Burton, however, can do better.
Burton’s take on the American picaresque stars Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney as young and old versions of Edward Bloom, a happy-go-lucky Tom Sawyer-type for whom good fortune is never in short supply. Both actors exude the charm natural to a character who can coolly strut through even the most dangerous situations – confronting a carnivorous giant, spying behind enemy lines in the Korean War or robbing a bank – yet their performances hint at something deeper beneath Bloom’s smirk.
Great Tim Burton movies, however, aren’t about smirks, but glowers. Batman, Ichabod Crane and Lydia Deitz, for example, each succeed in their respective movies because Burton loves the challenge of making a maladjusted misfit sympathetic to his audience. Since everybody already loves Edward Bloom, Burton and screenwriter John August cannot successfully hinge the entire plot upon him.
“Big Fish” further departs from the traditional Burton formula by intercutting the fantastic elements with very real human drama concerning the ailing Bloom and his estranged son, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup). August’s script sets up a nice dynamic between fact and fiction by contrasting Will, a journalist, with Ed, whose tall tales test both Will’s and the audience’s credulity. While these scenes are well-acted, they seem alien in a Tim Burton film until the film’s final 20 minutes, when Finney and Crudup spend enough time onscreen together to make their relationship genuine and moving.
It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg was originally attached to helm “Big Fish,” as its breed of imagination recalls more of “Hook” than “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Yet, without Burton’s direction, “Big Fish” would have lacked a few fun, spooky moments.
While the Bloom men seem somewhat out of place, the supporting cast works wonderfully. Burton’s main squeeze, Helena Bonham Carter, plays a dual role with a sexy-creepy slink that only she and Wednesday Addams could pull off. Freaks like a giant (Matthew McGrory), conjoined twins (Ada and Arlene Tai) and Danny DeVito round out the cast nicely.
But if you need one reason to like “Big Fish” despite its faults, it’s the scenes in secluded Spectre, Ala., a chunk of tidy but spooky Burtonesque Americana where life is impossibly, eerily perfect. While Edward’s stay in this ideal Burton setting is all too brief, Spectre’s presence in the film proves that Burton still has his flair for the freaky.
Restrained? Sure. Saccharine? A bit. But inky blobs of that Tim Burton darkness still seep through. “Big Fish” doesn’t flop.