Many hailed Big Fish as a return to form for Tim Burton and it was the first big box-office hit of 2004. Contrarily, I cannot say more what a thorough disappointment I found Big Fish to be. Personally, I found many not unpraiseworthy elements in Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, even the much detested Planet of the Apes. However, Big Fish would have to be a much bigger disappointment than all of the aforementioned put together. It is like Tim Burton has been abducted and replaced by a pod person. Big Fish feels exactly like a film that is made to appeal directly to the American heartland and aimed squarely in the eyes of the voters who nominate Academy Award Best Pictures. The effect is akin to Sam Raimi going from making The Evil Dead (1982) to boringly respectable mainstream American heartland dramas such as For the Love of the Game (1999) and The Gift (2000).
Big Fish is a tall tale film, not unakin to the exploits of Baron Munchausen but this feels like a version of Baron Munchausen where Tim Burton has been replaced by a clone of someone as ploddingly pedestrian and mainstream as Ron Howard, someone who is determined to spell out everything for the audience in simplistically signposted terms that not even an idiot could miss. The film is crucially missing the bubblingly eccentric delights of films like Pee-Wees Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood. There is none of the oddball outsiders take on things that made these films such a pleasure. Indeed, Big Fish seems to be struggling to let its fantasy fly at all. Tim Burton throws in giants, witches, Siamese twins, big fish and a venture into a town that may exist in an afterlife twilight zone, but the film remains resolutely earthbound. There is never a single point the film opens up and any of the fabulist depictions make you go wow. Compare the scenes set in the ghost town of Spectre with the gonzo afterlife depicted in Burtons Beetlejuice the scenes set in town here seem like something from a Coen Brothers film that fails to ignite. The romantic element singularly fails to fly. What we are left with is a meandering tall tale that is not particularly interesting at all.
Moreover, Big Fish fails to deliver on its promise. The film offers a simple premise it sets Albert Finney up as an habitual teller of tall tales; Billy Crudup plays his son who is determined to get to the truth behind the tales and find out who his father really is. Only after setting this expectation up, Tim Burton peculiarly never arrives at a conclusion. Burton seems almost entirely uninterested in ever learning the truth behind the tales. There is a single scene where the film seems on the verge of parsing away the elaborations and starting to show the core of truth beneath the tales the venture back into the town of Spectre and the encounter with Helena Bonham Carter. However, even when she cuts away to tell the truth of her tale, Burton leaps off into depictions of giants, circuses and Steve Buscemis bank robber-poet-made-Wall St broker. Burton leaves us at the end of the film with Albert Finney dead and us none the wiser as to who he really was. Indeed, the films ultimate journey for Billy Crudup as the son is to go from someone who sets out to find out the truth behind his fathers tall tales, to someone who just shrugs off his determined quest and joins in the telling of a grand tall tale himself at the end as Burton fades out on a funeral scene that shows that the tales were not made up after all.
Nothing in Big Fish works. The casting seems singularly awkward. Tim Burton has peculiarly cast British actors Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Helena Bonham Carter as his Alabama natives, with all affecting fake Southern accents. The best of these is Albert Finney who effortlessly creates the role of aging father with the exact cantankerous blarney that the character is supposed to have. The sparkling Jessica Lange is cast opposite as his wife, although Burton fails to give her a scene that allows her the opportunity to open up. Far less effective is Ewan McGregor, cast supposedly because of the resemblance between he and the middle-aged Albert Finney (one fails to see it). Ewan, along with his broadly affected Southern accent, fails to convince. Fine actor as he can be, when he tries to plays earnest, Ewan is all callow, hand-wringing innocence. He seems too squeaky clean and boyish. You fail to see anything in his performance of the blarney that Albert Finney later displays in his take on the character. Indeed, try as you might, you fail to see any connection between the younger Ewan in the flashbacks and the older Albert Finney in the present-day scenes. Alison Lohman is well cast as the younger version of Jessica Lange, even if her hair looks obviously dyed. Unfortunately the hole that she leaves in the romantic scenes is that she looks all of about 15 throughout and you cannot help but think as Ewan McGregor romances her that there seems something decidedly indecent about he (a man of 32) making out with someone who looks so young.
Tim Burtons other films of genre interest include the kitsch Pee-Wees Big Adventure (1985); the bizarre ghost story Beetlejuice (1988); Batman (1989); the genteel artificial boy fairy-tale Edward Scissorhands (1990); Batman Returns (1992); Ed Wood (1994), a biopic of the worlds worst director; the alien invasion comedy Mars Attacks! (1996); the ghost story Sleepy Hollow (1999); the remake of Planet of the Apes (2001); Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005); the stop-motion animated Gothic Corpse Bride (2005); the horror musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007); Alice in Wonderland (2010); the film remake of the tv series Dark Shadows (2012) the stop-motion animated Frankenweenie (2012); and Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children (2016). Burton also produced Henry Selicks darkly brilliant stop-motion animated fantasies The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996); as well as the live-action conte cruel Cabin Boy (1994), Batman Forever (1995), the animated 9 (2009), Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016). The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? (2015) is a fascinating documentary about Burtons failed Superman Lives project.