If Big Fish is notable for one thing, it’s probably as Tim Burton’s first grownup movie. Despite the director’s usual quirky flourishes (giants, Siamese twins, a werewolf), the film features a genuine maturity not usually found in his work.
That’s not to say Burton’s movies aren’t for adults; they are, provided the adults have a large dose of little kid in them. Even when Burton tackles something a little more grownup, like the ultra-dark Batman Returns, one still has the feeling of watching a kid playing with the world’s largest Erector set.
But this film, based on Daniel Wallace’s novel, Big Fish: A Myth of Gigantic Proportions, includes more serious subject matter than a typical Burton flick.
Ever since he was a kid, William Bloom (Billy Crudup) has heard his dad Edward’s (Albert Finney) tall tales. They varied from the banal to the truly outrageous. Having moved away years ago, William returns home when he learns Edward is dying. As William relates the tall tales to his wife, he comes to realize that there was much more to his father than his outrageous stories.
Big Fish has us at the opening credits with Danny Elfman’s powerfully haunting but subtle score. Like a child listening to a grandparent weave a fairy tale, the moviegoer will be entranced as Burton weaves his own magic.
Yet there is something more going on here. As much as the movie is about Edward’s unusual life — if you believe his stories — Big Fish is fundamentally about William coming to terms with saying goodbye to a father he never really knew. But as we learn, it’s only because he wasn’t listening.
The acting is, of course, quite special. Ewan McGregor comes off as a cross between Forrest Gump and Harold Hill (the protagonist of The Music Man) as the young Edward. Finney is touching as the older Edward. Jessica Lange, in a relatively small part, has a dignity that imbues the movie with a certain depth. Crudup has a quiet intensity as the son. There are also some very nice cameos by Steve Buscemi and Danny DeVito.
In some ways, Big Fish is reminiscent of Forrest Gump, but much more sincere. It is one of those movies that tugs at your heartstrings yet never insults your intelligence. It also has marvelous art direction — another Burton trademark — but again, the visuals take a backseat to the story.
If Big Fish has any shortcomings, it’s Burton’s inability to trust himself a bit more. There are some oddball moments that are probably more from Burton than the source material.
But that’s a small price to pay when there’s a chance to see some real magic. Big Fish is one out of water.
Starting tomorrow at area theaters
Three reels out of four
This whole TV-adaptation thing is out of hand. There’s even a big-screen version of Bewitched due next year with Nicole Kidman. That said, the movie version of S.W.A.T. is quite watchable and is every bit the film that Bad Boys should have been. Samuel Jackson is a S.W.A.T. commander who is given one last chance by his boss. He can handpick his own team of specialists with one proviso: They must undergo a grueling trial run. If they don’t pass, they’re out, including him. Things get even stickier when a European drug lord offers a huge prize to any thug who can break him out of jail. This is a good popcorn movie, period.