Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) has always been a teller of tall tales about his oversized life as a young man (Ewan McGregor), when his wanderlust led him on an unlikely journey from a small town in Alabama, around the world, and back again. His mythic exploits dart all over the place as he weaves epic tales about giants, blizzards, a witch, and conjoined-twin lounge singers.
With his tall tales, Bloom charms almost everyone he encounters - except for his estranged son, William (Billy Crudup). When his mother Sandra (Jessica Lange) tries to reunite them, William must learn how to separate fact from fiction as he comes to terms with his father's great feats and failings.
Watching a Tim Burton film, you usually get great visuals that display flashes of brilliance and smatterings of dark humour that are accompanied by a slim plot and/or characters. Every so often, as with Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, the eye candy and laughs are supported by an actual working plot and characters with more than one dimension. More often than not, though, you get Sleepy Hollow, Beetlejuice or Planet of the Apes, whose sums are less than their combined parts.
Big Fish, his most mature and accomplished work to date, belongs with the former group. While Burton's signature visual fashion and penchant for offbeat humour, most evident during the tall tale sequences that are handsomely captured by ace cinematographer Philippe Rouselot, are proudly on display in this film, they are hardly the centre of attention.
When the story shifts focus from the past to the present, the film turns quite serious in tone. This type of shift from whimsy to drama is one that requires a director who knows how to avoid turning the material into a melodramatic, manipulative mess. When one thinks of directors in Hollywood who would be able to achieve such a task, the director of Batman and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure does not immediately come to mind.
Yet, Tim Burton gets the job accomplished and does a damn fine job doing it. His handling of the dramatic material is balanced and unforced, allowing John August's heartfelt, intelligent screenplay adaptation and a terrific ensemble cast, highlighted by Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor's superb performances, to take centre stage instead. We expect Burton to deliver on the fantasy sequences, but we are completely caught off guard when it comes to the dramatic punch he and his cast and crew deliver in the film's second half.
Big Fish is a wonderful movie, part surreal fantasy, part comedy, part heartbreaking family drama and overall a truly satisfying experience. It's a film that shows a talented filmmaker finally realising his full potential while at the same time offering us one of 2003's most original commercial offerings.