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Tall stories of long tales
Having been for a Burton – a film review of BIG FISH by Camus
"You want me to leave?" -- "Yes, but I want to leave with you..."


Tim Burton is the personification of (if such a thing can exist) the mainstream outsider, at least in terms that Hollywood will tolerate. He is gangly, has dark uncontrollable hair, wears black all the time, has a very distinct artistic vision, one that permeates all of his films and more importantly for Hollywood, his films have diarrhoeaed mountains of cash. Furthering his iconic status is his choice of partner. If Helena Bonham-Carter had been wooed, courted and made pregnant in her Merchant Ivory days, I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. But as Marla in Fight Club (re-invent much?) she's now my bee's knees (how shallow can I get?), the round peg, the belle of the Burton ball. I have a small admission to make. I found her chimp in Burton's Planet of the Apes achingly sexy. Good luck to the pair of them, sensible souls who live in separate houses but live 'together'. Their offspring will love them for it.

Burton has done something most film-making outsiders do not manage to do - make absurd amounts of money for executives and provide said executives with a certain artistic eminence-by-association. "So you produced a Vin Diesel action pic and it went huge in Japan? Nuts to that, I produce for an auteur and therefore I have elevated status." The perfect director for an executive is an outsider whose films make money. Apologies. The perfect director for an executive is an outsider whose films haemorrhage obscene amounts of money.

As a fledgling, in love with horror movies and animation, Burton was groomed to learn traditional cell animation the Disney© way and rebelled as it was muting his own voice. No, really? That can't be true of Disney©, can it? Who could have guessed that this awkward kid would carve such a distinctive niche in the power play that is the US mainstream film industry? When I first saw Frankenweenie (a live action Disney funded short about kids making a dog from canine spare parts) I knew I was watching astounding work by a director whom I knew in my bones would never make it through the flesh and bone peppermill that is Hollywood. Shame on me. It's surprising how fast 'Burtonesque' elbowed its way into the Hollywood jargon. One mega-hit does that to a career.

Burton's first film, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, is an absurdly enjoyable cartoony romp which on paper must have looked very odd even given its television 'built-in-audience' roots. But there are parts of that film that still send various contributors to this site into a buzzing childlike glee. Even the arrest of Paul Reuben (Pee Wee himself) for lewd behaviour doesn't even dent the magic. (I mean who watches what people are doing in a porn movie house anyway? Wouldn't it be harder (ho hum) to find non-masturbatory clientele? Can't these people be arrested for gawping?). Beetlejuice came out of nowhere. It was a hit defying all Hollywood logic and being relatively dark, it teed up the young director for the Guber-Peters era-defining mega-hit.

Batman's extraordinary success must have had an effect on Burton. He went from idiosyncrasy to idiomatic in the swirl of a cape. Burton had directed one of the most successful movies of all time (I suspect completely by accident) and despite it being very definitely a Tim Burton film (the production design is the signature on the painting so to speak) he was unhappy with it. He had a lot more fun with Batman Returns, which in many respects, is a superior piece of work. Edward Sissorhands is believed to be the quintessential Burton movie, the tale of an alter ego whose urge to be loved is tempered by tempered steel fingers.

So what of Big Fish, a film that screams father-son Freudian subtext? A film that if it were made by Woody Allen we'd be deconstructing it until doomsday; a film that marks a progression in an artist, but progress towards what? Big Fish is a real oddity. It doesn't look like a Tim Burton film. It is sentimental (here I risk going against common opinion), but sentiment equals emotion. Emotion is why I go to the movies therefore I don't mind sentiment too much -


...unless it's Patch frickin' Adams, the most execrable movie ever made with a musical score I'd skin mice to. I shiver remembering my experience, trapped on a plane, watching Robin Williams (an actor I admire for all sorts of reasons but NOT as 'the funny doctor!') hamming it up to an alarming degree to a score that should come first in a "FEEL LOVE TO THIS OAF, FEEL, F-E-E-L you cynical bastards!" Festival. Oh, let's move on unless we all drown in a sea of sickening smiles. Back to the Fish.

Albert Finney and his younger self, Ewan McGregor, have theatrical American accents. They (or rather their combined character Bloom) speak with a hearty southern US twang. It is a suspension of disbelief that you have to employ if you're a Brit. It's something to get past. If you get past it, you're left with a well meaning tale of a man whose unwavering devotion to the love of his life and his kindness in the faces of many adversities mark him out amongst his fellow men. Here is a man who is made happy by seeing the happiness in others. I tried that once. It was a learning experience. Ahem.

Father and son; they do not talk. So the outcome is in no doubt (Hollywood dollars = Hollywood endings) but it's Burton so we cut him some slack (after Planet of the Apes, we were all out of slack). But it's kind of not-Burton. Even his long time collaborator Danny Elfman has turned in a mediocre score. Elfman seemed to burst on the scene with idiosyncratic scores of startling originality (I mean the theme from The Simpsons doesn't exactly blend in with the wallpaper). I read somewhere that he didn't actually read music but after Pee Wee, Beetlejuice and Batman, he could have been deaf and composed a la Beethoven, feeling vibrations on a wooden board, for all I cared. Suddenly Elfman's muse went south. Hulk, Spiderman, Men in Black, Planet of the Nonsensical Screenplays - all tepid, generic scores and it's such a shame and an injustice to the films his music is serving. His score for Fish is mawkish and about as memorable as a... a... can't recall.

So wherefore art thou, Burton art? The performances are both subtle and overblown in equal measure but they do what they need to do - be convincing in this semi-fantasy milieu. Jessica Lange shines, a real woman playing a real woman, older, super-sexy and a bath scene that is a highlight simply for the emotion on display. Why do both Finney and Lange keep their clothes on? To quote Pee Wee, "I don't know!" but it's still effortlessly romantic. The film is peppered with lovely moments but there is a stand out performance.

Billy Crudup steals the film. Why? He has the worst part (the grudging son who never understood his flamboyant and super popular father) but unlike most actors in this role, Crudup (change your surname, my man) plays it so well, you keep forgetting you're really not supposed to like this guy. I mean isn't it obvious his dad's not a liar and that he did work as anything and everything in a circus for months for nothing just to find out a girl's name? Crudup keeps you grounded. He's real in a melange of unreal and at the end the two converge (as of course they have to). Billy Crudup, I salute your performance.

But good performances still don't make Big Fish a Tim Burton film. The only thing to explain the lack of 'auteur'ial stamp I can think of is that Burton is having grown-up thoughts (imminent fatherhood does that to you) and figured Big Fish could draw them out. This isn't to cast juvenile aspersions as to the suitability of Burton's previous work for adults. I adored Sleepy Hollow to hell and back. How many movies present a child's death with such throwaway cruelty - the child is hunted, treated to the sight of his mother's severed head and then the child's own head is stuffed into a bag with nary a nod towards the ethics of motion picture political correctness.

Executives will give Burton a lot of line given his past success (I believe Planet of the Deux Ex Machinas made money, go figure) but what of the end result? Oscar nominated music score (what?) and moderate box office success - not that these are indications of a film's worth, far from it. Uncle Oscar usually presents the world with favourites not quality and Academy members seem to vote for films that present the voters themselves in the most favourable light. This is the only reason that a loin clothed Indian whipped ET's ass in 1982. Who wants to vote for an animatronic puppet when they can vote for one of the greatest men who ever lived?

Big Fish is certainly Tim Burton's most 'accessible' film in the sense that it's not hugely clear to me that a single voice is talking. I have not read the source novel so cannot comment on the original narrative but those seeking the wild and, dare I say, whacky, delights of Burton's previous offerings may find Big Fish too conventional despite the werewolves, giants, Vietnam heroics, picket fences and Siamese twins.

But right now, there's a lot worse out there. A rum to mediocre Burton is still a Burton. Next please - my God, is that Willy Wonka? Oompa loompa...

Big Fish

USA 2003
125 mins
Tim Burton
Dan Jinks
Richard D. Zanuck
John August
based on the novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by
Daniel Wallace
Philippe Rousselot
Chris Lebenzon
Danny Elfman
production design
Dennis Gassner
Ewan McGregor
Albert Finney
Billy Crudup
Jessica Lange
Alison Lohman
review posted
6 February 2005

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See all of Camus's reviews