Looking back at Tim Burton’s Big Fish

Off the back of Planet Of The Apes, Tim Burton chose very wisely for his next project. We look back at Big Fish...

There’s a time when a man needs to fight, and a time when he needs to accept that his destiny is lost, the ship has sailed and only a fool would continue. Truth is I’ve always been a fool.” – Edward Bloom

The Recap

After having huge financial, if not critical success with 2001’s Planet Of The Apes, Burton’s next project would see him taking a completely different direction, taking on a gentler more family friendly project which tells of a relationship between a father and son, played out against a lot of tall tales.

While attending his son’s wedding, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) tells the story of the day his son was born. Rather than being at the birth, he was out trying to catch a huge uncatchable fish, using his wedding ring as bait. The storytelling rubs his son Will (Billy Crudup) up the wrong way as he feels his father has never told him the truth about anything and the two become estranged.

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A few years later, with his father’s health failing, Will and his wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) make a trip back to his home of Alabama. During their journey Will tells his wife the story of how as a child his father made it trhough the swamplands to meet with a witch who showed him how he would die and how that information made him fearless throughout the rest of his life.

Although years have passed, Edward carries on with his tales, telling his son and daughter-in-law his life story, starting with the fact that as a child he was confined to his bed as he was growing too fast, then becoming a successful sportsman in his home town before leaving with a giant called Karl and joining the circus. While there he works for free in exchange for information about a girl he has fallen in love with at first sight.

When the information turns out to only be trivial facts, Edward is upset, but then finds out that the ringmaster of the circus who has been telling him these stories is, in fact, a werewolf and in return for his silence he tells Edward the girl’s name, Sandra Templeton.

After tracking her down he discovers she is engaged, but the relationship soon sours after Edward is beaten up by her fiancé. As he recovers, the two fall in love, but their happiness is short lived as Edward is soon conscripted to the army and sent to Korea.

While there he meets a Siamese twin act and plans to take them back to America to make them stars. However, as he cannot contact anybody on the way home, the army declares him dead and he begins working as a travelling salesman, ends up robbing a bankrupt bank, and ends up giving his friend career advice that makes him rich and, in turn, gives Edward $10,000 to buy his dream family home.

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Still finding it hard to believe his father and his stories, Will begins digging into the past and discovers his father has done many great things and, although his stories are on the imaginative side, this doesn’t take away from what he has achieved. As his father’s health fails further it is up to Will to finish the story.

Escaping the hospital, Will takes his father to the lake from the day of his birth where his past friends come to say their goodbyes to him. As they enter the river itself Edward becomes the big uncatchable fish from the story and swims away.

Thoughts & Reaction

Burton’s most personal film to date, Big Fish is a fairytale set next to a movie that delves into the relationship between a father and his son. Adapted from the novel of the same name it was first mooted to be directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Jack Nicholson as Edward, with major changes to the original script to accommodate more screen time for Nicholson. However, as the project dragged its feet slightly, Spielberg left to begin work on Catch Me If You Can, which also lost them Nicholson.

British director Stephen Daldry was then approached but turned the job down, which is when the script fell into Burton’s lap. Having recently lost both his parents, Burton found the script to be a touching and relevant project to his state of mind at the time and noted that the story itself was the most unique he had read since his work on 1988’s Beetlejuice

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After dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, Burton jumped straight into casting, firstly approaching Nicholson again to play the role of Edward Bloom – both young and old – but ultimately deciding to cast two different actors to play Edward (Finney and Ewan McGregor) as well as casting two actresses for the role of Sandra. Sticking with putting his respective other half in his movies, Burton cast girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter in another dual role of witch and town girl Jenny.

With casting complete, filming began in Alabama (with only one week’s worth of shooting in Paris) and, although they suffered terribly with the weather, Burton delivered the movie on time and on budget to the studio, which must have been a relief to him after a debacle that was Planet Of The Apes.

Filmed in a Southern-Gothic style, Big Fish isn’t completely the sort of movie you would expect Tim Burton to direct, but somehow that works in an over sentimental way. The core story of the father/son relationship can be a bit syrupy and some moments it feels like you are chewing on a toffee dipped in maple syrup and dunked in sugar, but mixed in with over the top tales surrounding it, the balance is somewhat restored.

Beautifully shot, the movie is a joy to look at just for the visuals and again sticking to his guns, Burton tries his hardest not to use CGI unless he really needs to which adds somewhat to the authenticity of the film (something, sadly, he did not do in his next movie, but I’ll get to that later). The colours and the vibrancy jump off the screen and in many ways it’s the least Tim Burton-looking Tim Burton movie of recent times.

The casting is spot on (tweens out there – check out Miley Cyrus in her first screen role) and as always it is a great to see Albert Finney on the screen. His presence alone is worth watching this movie.

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A financial success upon its release, Big Fish ended up being a critical success also and managed to pick up Golden Globe, BAFTA, Saturn and Oscar award nominations.

Burton’s next project would also be linked to a novel adaptation, this time taking a visit into the head of Roald Dahl and taking Charlie to the Chocolate Factory all over again.

Big Fish Key Info:Released: 9th January 2004 (US) / 23rd January 2004 (UK)Distributed By: Columbia PicturesBudget: $70,000,000Box Office Gross: $122,920,000Best DVD Edition: Big Fish DVD