Edward Bloom (played in his younger years by Ewan McGregor and as an older man by Albert Finney) is not an easy man to get to know but everybody he meets loves him. His elaborate stories--of his encounter with a witch whose glass eye shows a man's death his dramatic exodus from his hometown with a giant his return with gorgeous Siamese twins his job in the circus meeting his wife his son's birth and his own attempts to catch the biggest fish in the lake--entertain everyone who hears them except his estranged son William (Billy Crudup) who's heard them all too many times. He'll hear them again though; the film shows us the father's fantasy world in all its Tim Burton glory flashing back to Edward's youth and showing the stories as he tells them. Juxtaposed with these colorful imaginings are scenes of Edward's bittersweet reality: He's old now and dying. William has come home hoping to confront his father whose incredible fictions enriched his childhood but made him an embittered adult. They both know that soon the only story left to tell will be the one whose ending Edward has kept secret his entire life: the vision of his death that the witch showed him in her glass eye.
Because the stories from the past and the present are interwoven so closely Big Fish is a little hard to grasp in the beginning. Because the story's so complex the characters aren't immediately accessible even though the acting is generally good--barring a few slips in the Southern accents from McGregor and Alison Lohman. Once we start to get the gist though it becomes clear that Big Fish has some very rich rounded complex characters played well across the board. Finney stands out with an intelligent and moving turn as the older Edward among a cast of highly regarded thesps including Jessica Lange Helena Bonham Carter and Steve Buscemi. A five-time Academy Award nominee but never a winner Finney may see another nod--and given his empty mantel maybe even a win--for this role in the Best Supporting Actor category come February.
Next to the originality of the story Tim Burton's direction is perhaps the most compelling thing about Big Fish. Known for embracing his inner weirdness in films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas which he produced and Edward Scissorhands which he directed and produced Burton continues that trend with Big Fish's "tall tale" sequences. The director restrains the freaky side of his creative impulse during the reality segments proving himself as adept at serious drama as he is at fantasy. The cinematography and set design throughout are as gorgeous as they are appropriate to each segment's theme: The fantasy--of foggy lakeside sunrises the quaint yet not-quite-right town of Spectre and its soft-focus hoedown the dark haunted forest--contrasts with the stark reality of the hospital ward and a dying father's deathbed. Director of photography Philippe Rousselot who worked with Burton on the director's last film Planet of the Apes captures every meticulous detail of the magical sets produced by art director Richard L. Johnson production designer Dennis Glassner and set decorator Nancy Haigh.