Why do we tell stories? In his 2003 fantasy Big Fish, Tim Burton addresses this question through the story, or stories, of Edward Bloom whose tendency to exaggerate results in a forced estrangement between him and his son, Will.
When Edward’s health becomes severe, Will returns home from Paris and, realising that this is his last opportunity to understand his father, attempts to separate fact from fiction. Although on paper this is well-trodden melodramatic territory, it’s elevated in Burton’s hands – with the playful 50’s episodes being warped with his signature gothic sensibilities and visual flair. Edward’s whimsical tales are sun-bleached and rose-tinted, the cinematography conveying the soft lens of memory and nostalgia.
Edward’s youthful avatar is played by Ewan McGregor who, despite a grating southern accent, effectively presents innocence and optimism in a far-reaching tale stretching to include giants, witches, werewolves and conjoined Korean singers. A particularly bizarre vignette takes place in the Lynchian town of Spectre wherein all residents are shoeless and “no one has ever left”, a place where time has seemingly stood still.
Burton’s film is a celebration of storytelling
Burton’s fantasy could simply have been a distorted Forrest Gump (1994), however the film is undercut with a sense of cynicism, as the viewer and Will dubiously question the validity and significance of the stories. It is in this way that Big Fish achieves a sense of thematic weight, something that Burton has had difficulty with in more recent projects, as the tales become background for the strained relationship between father and son. The central cause of conflict between the two is the nature of truth; Edward romanticises his life while Will laments a father who was largely absent and never much more than a story-spinner.
This contention builds to a conclusion that, despite predictability, is nevertheless moving as Will realises the power that fables have in a final act of compassion. As such, Burton’s film is a celebration of storytelling, an appreciation of the emotional truth that can be delivered through fiction and fallacy. Perhaps in a similar way to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Big Fish is also an examination of a single life and the colours that can be drawn from it. Despite its flaws, Burton’s film is poignant and contemplative, balancing the fantastical with a sense of purpose and is ripe for reappraisal.
Featured image credit: IMDb
Last modified: 6th August 2020