Big Fish is a Tim Burton film that seems to sit entirely at odds with the gothic tales of love in weird places upon which he built his reputation, but which also offered a slightly scary (and not in the good way) glimpse at the wackiness that was to saturate his high-profile Disney remakes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.
Reminiscent of a more fantastical version of Forrest Gump, Big Fish tells the many tall tales of Edward Bloom as he faces up to both terminal cancer and the fact his son Will thinks he’s a deluded blowhard with an inflated sense of self-importance. As Edward shares stories of his encounters with giants, Siamese twins and a genuinely creepy ghost town called, fittingly, Spectre, Will is left frustrated that his enraptured mother and wife aren’t more disturbed by his father’s tenuous grip on reality.
Albert Finney portrays Edward’s utter self-belief in his impossible life with a sinister dead-eyed conviction; one minute seeming a harmless idiot, the next quite believable as a possibly adulterous habitual liar. Through Finney’s hidden depths, Edward’s insistence that he’s always been the titular ‘big fish’ in a small pond seem tragic, in sharp contrast to the smug inanity of Ewan Macgregor’s younger Edward.
After cementing his status in the 1990s as the filmmaker of choice for awkward outsider goths, Big Fish seemed to be aiming for mainstream appeal with its big-name character actor casting. Alongside Finney and flavour-of-the-early-00s Ewan Macgregor, the star-studded cast includes Danny DeVito playing to type as a dodgy circus ringmaster, the token appearance of Burton’s erstwhile wife Helena Bonham-Carter as a fortune-telling witch, and an effortlessly loveable turn by Steve Buscemi as the world’s worst poet.
But despite pulling out all the stops with casting and production, Big Fish fell short of becoming a classic. With all of Burton’s trademarks removed (Bonham-Carter excepted), the fantasy set pieces and augmented reality seem a little soulless. It’s only when young Edward stumbles across the eerie town of Spectre that we feel Burton’s presence, be it in the surrounding forest of ancient animated trees, or in the 1950s-on-acid perfectly manicured gardens and white picket fences of the residents’ abodes.
Beyond this, some of the plot points encountered in Big Fish seem downright problematic in woke 2018. The way Edward relentlessly pursues his future wife Sandra seemed romantic as hell in 2003, but could now easily be seen as stalker-like, made more disturbing by the fact older Sandra, played by the ever-flawless Jessica Lange, seems like she’s been spiked with happy pills for the past 30 years. And it’s impossible to listen to Edward’s constant self-aggrandising without thinking of a certain leader of the free world’s own fantastical claims of triumph in the face of imaginary adversity.
In the end, Big Fish wants us to believe that truth doesn’t matter, that in the end we all die no matter how determined we are to live an honest life. At a time when real life is becoming increasingly unbearable, maybe there’s something for us to learn after all from Edward Bloom’s steadfast refusal to engage with reality.
Words by Katie Roberts, Marketing and Sales Officer, HOME.