Big fish is easily the most personal and mature film Tim Burton has made in years. It is also one of those films that manages to be both sad and uplifting at the same time — uplifting, because it points to a profound truth, but sad, because it offers no basis for that truth; beneath the film’s feel-good vibe, there is just a hint of despair.
Adapted from the novel by Daniel Wallace, the film is about Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), a wildly imaginative man whose almost pathological need to tell tall tales about his younger and more charismatic self (Ewan McGregor) has alienated him from his skeptical son Will (Billy Crudup), who has channeled his frustrations into a career as a just-the-facts journalist.
When news comes that Edward is dying, Will reluctantly comes home with his wife, whose presence gives Edward yet another chance to spin his yarns about one-eyed witches, towering giants, hidden towns, conjoined twins, and the vast field of daffodils with which he wooed his wife (Alison Lohman in the flashbacks, Jessica Lange in the present-day scenes).
Of course, father and son are reconciled in the end, and Will learns to live within his father’s imaginary world and to accept that stories can be more important than the facts. There is a glimmer of truth in this; as Tolkien and Lewis showed, myth can point to higher truths than mere facts, and some of the stories Edward tells do point to deeper, more intangible realities, especially where his love for his wife is concerned.
But stories need to be heard as much as they need to be told, and if it is by sharing our stories with each other that we become more fully human people, then it is disappointing that Edward shows barely any interest in hearing the stories of others. We get to hear and see his version of how he and his wife first met, but what is her side of the story?
The film ends with the suggestion that it is through our stories, and the stories that we can get other people to tell about us, that we achieve immortality. But this rings hollow to my ears; if our only chance for eternal life is to hope that people keep on talking about us, then what happens when everyone else is dead, too?
In this regard, Burton falls just short of Tolkien’s idea that we, as story-tellers, are sub-creators who work within God’s own acts of creation. If our stories point to deeper truths, it is because they take place within an even greater Story that is much bigger than ourselves. Without this sort of background, Edward Bloom’s stories become little more than an artful exercise in denial, and in puffing himself up.
Still, the stories he tells are a visual and narrative delight, and the film’s emphasis on marital fidelity is quite commendable. The film may be a mixed blessing, but there is much to appreciate here.