Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2003)

10. Big Fish

After making the financially successful, if critically derided, “Planet of the Apes,” perhaps Tim Burton was looking for a more personal project for his next film. Originally groomed for Steven Spielberg, “Big Fish” is not your typical Tim Burton movie. The story is grounded in real life concerns such as the death of the parent. The visual design is much more muted, without Burton’s trademark expressionistic angles. Yet beneath the surface, “Big Fish” is rife with Burton-esque motifs and themes.

All his life, Will Bloom has heard the fantastic tall tales of his father, Edward. He hasn’t believed them for years and now considers his father a liar and a sham. Upon hearing that dad is ill with terminal cancer, Will flies back home, pregnant wife in tow, in hopes of connecting with his father one last time. On his death bed, the elder Bloom shares his stories one last time. While attempting to get at the truth behind the tales, Will discovers more of his father’s stories are true then he ever expected.

At first, “Big Fish” appears to be a departure in the director’s career. The film’s framing device is incredibly down to Earth, seemingly to contrast more with the tall tales the characters tell. This is different from the usual Burton style, where the whole movie is set in a world just removed from reality. Secondly, the color palette is different then the director’s usual. Instead of gloomy blacks, greys, and whites, “Big Fish” is a film awash in warm oranges, sunny yellows, and and sky blues. The interiors of homes are usually an Earthy green, recalling lake water. “Big Fish” doesn’t necessarily look like Tim Burton movie.

Save for a few isolated moments of Burton style. The time the director’s usual quirks come to the surface most blatantly is during an early story. A group of children hike into the swamp to visit a spooky witch in a dilapidated mansion, whose glass eye predicts the future. As expected, this sequence is typically dark, thanks to the swamp setting, and gothic, thanks to the strange old home. Later on, while exploring the woods, young Edward Bloom finds himself in two scary scenarios. The first involves the gnarled branches of trees, seemingly alive, reaching out for him, holding him back. The second involves a huge hollow filled top to bottom with spider webs. The director’s continued fascination with the circus climaxes here. A clown in stripped pajamas and a giant in a black and white box are the only time the director’s trademark visual makes an appearance here. Finally, the circus storyline concludes with Edward encountering a werewolf… A werewolf that is actually quite friendly and only wants to play a game of fetch. Fleeting horror elements like these are the biggest indicators that “Big Fish” is a Burton film.

Yet a look beneath the surface confirms “Big Fish” as a Burton movie through and through. The entire tone is directed by the filmmaker’s preference for whimsy and underlined by a meloncholey wave of loss and grown-up cynicism. Edward Bloom’s quest to find himself in the world frequently paints him as a Burton-esque outsider, somebody who must struggle to be accepted into a new world. Finally, the director’s shooting style is dually present and accounted for. “Big Fish” is shot in wide, expressive frames. From the beginning, we see the senior Bloom centered in the middle of a river, fishing. Both towns of Ashton and Spectre are frequently framed by looking down long pathways, picturesque buildings on both sides. My favorite shot in the film is a brief one near the end, when a bright red Charger pulls atop a hill, a tree next to it. A closer look reveals that the director’s fingerprints are all over the picture.

The original novel by Daniel Wallace is widely episodic, making it a tricky choice to adapt. Screenwriter John August takes the approach of framing a more down-to-Earth story around Bloom’s tall tales. Will and his wife get to know his father and watch his health deteriorate. Later, Will travels to Spectre, eager to find the truth behind his father’s stories. For long stretches, the framing device is interrupted by Bloom’s tales, each one usually narrated by a different character. This structure allows the tall tales to comment on and feed into the plot’s development and themes. It’s a clever way to get around the episodic problem, as each story segment advances the plot in some way.

“Big Fish” is also a rich screenplay with several themes on its mind. The film is primarily concerned with the reconciliation between father and son. Will Bloom says early on in the film that he never saw much of himself in his father. Though captivated by his father’s tall tales as a young child, he quickly grows tired of them. Soon, he realizes that the real man could never match up to the fantasy. Yet the film is largely about him realizing that’s okay. The climatic scene has Will spinning his own outrageous yarn about his father’s death and tying together many of the film’s most memorable moments. The son inherits his father’s ability for storytelling and, in doing so, comes to terms with his father’s life. The film is ultimately about accepting loved ones, flaws and all, and carrying a piece of them with you forever. Both Burton and August had both lost parents not long before working on this film. The story obviously reflects on both of them accepting their own fathers’ deaths.

The film has other things on its mind. While outside of Spectre, Edward Bloom sees a naked woman floating in the lake. He tries to pursue her but the strange woman is gone before he catches up to her. This occurs days before he meets the woman he immediately recognizes as his future wife. For the next two years, Edward toils while attempting to discover the true identity of the woman he loves. Before potentially committing adultery, Edward sees the lady in the water again, reminding him of his commitment to his wife. At the end, the film explicitly points out the connection between Sandra and the mysterious woman. Not only does this bring to mind stories of sirens and naiads, it also illustrates Edward as a dreamer, always on a quest with an impossible goal. Sandra and her corresponding mermaid isn’t the only woman in Edward’s life. As a child, he meets the strange witch, and is the only boy in his group not frightened of her. While in the strange town of Spectre, he meets a little girl named Jenny who is obviously crushed on him. A decade and a half later, the two meet again. Jenny still loves him and Edward is tempted to stray by the beautiful young women. He doesn’t and, as the years go on, time folds in on itself, Jenny becoming the witch. There’s a mythic quality to this subplot, two women separated widely by time becoming one and the same.

“Big Fish’ is a mythic film and, accordingly, certain archetypal concepts come up throughout the run time. Edward Bloom is presented as a man on a quest. Early on, as he comes of age, his body grows out of control, literally out of synch with his age. He quickly leaves his home, headed for glory. All sorts of adventures greet him. He meets, and befriends, a giant. While drafted into the Korean War, he parachutes behind enemy lines, karate fights some soldiers, and sneaks out of the country with a pair of Siamese twins. Later on, he’s involved in an incredibly ineffectual bank robbery, helping a friend stick up a place that was stuck up the day before. This is classic Hero’s Journey stuff, putting “Big Fish” in tradition with ancient stories.

The film also belongs to the genre of Southern Gothic. Or, rather, Southern Fantastique. Befitting a work of magic realism, the settings are seemingly realistic but fantastic things happen in them anyway. Fantasy creatures like giants, witches, werewolves, mermaids, and huge catfish inhabit the film. Magical events regularly intervene on reality. When spotting the love of his life, time stands still for Bloom. And time quickly catches up afterwards. A rain storm leads to a downfall that quickly floods the entire area. The forest is a magical place where strange, sometimes dangerous, things happen. My favorite bit of magic realism is the town of Spectre. Hidden in the woods, Spectre is seemingly perfect, where the grass is soft, the weather is always perfect, and everyone is content. The film doesn’t back away from portraying the town as a little uncanny. The residents seem a little too happy and far too eager to have Edward stay with them. Yet the movie never gives Spectre a dark secret, subverting audiences' expectations. Instead, the town is metaphorically, if not literally, heaven. When Edward first arrives, the local tell him he’s early. Those that visit are destined to return and everyone comes back to it eventually. Amusingly, the economical crunches of the seventies affect the town later in the film, causing Edward to buy it back up, rebuilding the town and preserving its innocence. In “Big Fish,” the America South is a magical place where all sorts of things can happen.

 “Big Fish” is also a romance. Edward works at a circus for two years, all to discover what Sandra’s name and location are, amusingly filling all sorts of odd jobs, such as elephant shed cleaner and human cannonball. When he does finally learn her name, he goes out of his way to earn her love. The Courtship of Sandra Bloom sequence, as its called, is one of the film’s best moments. He leaves love notes for her in class and in the sky, determined to win her heart from her current fiancé. It’s a testament to the film’s charm and light touch that this never comes off as creepy. When her boyfriend discover Edward, he savagely beats him, the man taking it on the girl’s request. The beating is surprisingly brutal yet, after Sandra rejects her cruel fiancé, it leaves a heart shape in the field of flowers. It helps that Sandra and Edward truly love each other, even after fifty years as is perfectly displayed in the scene where she crawls into the bath with her ill husband.

Another element in favor of “Big Fish” is its likable cast. Ewan McGregor plays the young Bloom, bringing all of his natural charm to the part. That charm is necessary to keep Bloom from ever coming off as a cad. The way McGregor reacts to the fantastic events around him, always taking them at face value, is repeatedly amusing. In the present, Albert Finney plays Edward in his old age. Finney can’t quite nail the Southern accent but is otherwise perfectly cast in the part, bringing a roguish charm to the part while maintaining his age and frailty. Billy Crudup is the last lead in the film as Will Bloom. It’s probably the hardest part, as Crudup has to remain skeptical in the face of fantastic events without coming off as obnoxious. Crudup does a good job, mostly becoming an audience surrogate, one that is asked to unbelievable accept things on faith.

As is expected of a Burton, the film’s supporting cast is filled with fantastic character actors. Jessica Lange plays Sandra in her old age, an aged woman who has to smile and shake her head at her husband’s tale. Despite his wild stories, Lange makes it obvious how much she cares for him. As the younger Sandra is Alison Lohman, an actress I’ve always considered underrated who seems to be retired from acting now. Lohman has great chemistry with McGregor and, while she widely has to smile at her husband’s antics, she’s never less then charming. Helena Bonham Carter plays the other woman in Bloom’s life, as enchanting and precocious as both a witch and a young woman needs to be. The late Matthew McGrory plays Carl, a true gentle giant who, despite his huge size, is a kind person. It’s the part that would most widely expose McGrory’s unique charm and soft-spoken talent. Burton regulars Danny DeVito and Deep Roy have bit parts as well, as the ringleader and the head clown at the circus. Steve Buscemi isn’t a Burton regular but the off-beat actor is so perfectly matched with the director’s style that it's surprising they’ve never worked together before.

“Big Fish” is probably Burton’s most personal, low-key picture, even more so then the comedic “Ed Wood.” That personal element makes it special in the filmmaker’s career. The film isn’t perfect or his best work, feeling a bit too slight and too willing to excuse some of Bloom’s worst behavior. At times, the film threatens to overdose on whimsy. However, the prime cast and a deft understanding of tone makes “Big Fish” a charming watch. It is, by far, the director’s most grounded, mature, naturalistic and disciplined film. [Grade: B+]

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