“He Becomes Immortal”: Tim Burton’s Big Fish at 15
IN PRAISE OF BURTON’S STORYTELLING, TEAR JERKING MASTERPIECE, WHICH OFFERED ALL OF THE EMOTION AND NONE OF THE JOHNNY DEPP
The movie Big Fish, director Tim Burton’s deeply personal tale of fathers, sons, storytelling, and the power of tall tales and family mythologies, arrived in theaters 15 years ago this week. It’s still a film of uncommon strength and beauty. You can have your Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, or anything with Johnny Depp. Big Fish is the best film Tim Burton has ever made.
You can have your Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, or anything with Johnny Depp. Big Fish is the best film Tim Burton has ever made.
It’s the story of Edward Bloom (played as a young man by Ewan McGregor, and an older one by Albert Finney), something of a proto-Most Interesting Man in the World. He’s one of the great raconteurs, forever telling tall tales about his life of bravery and adventure- to the point where his son Will feels that he doesn’t know his father at all. As the film begins, Edward is on his deathbed and Will, about to be a father himself, is seeking to find out exactly what kind of man his father was.
Most of the film is Edward’s fantastical stories, which the film later reveals were slightly exaggerated but basically true. The two reconcile at the end, as Will picks up the storytelling bug himself, just in time for his own fatherhood. In the final scene, we see Will’s son, about 6, telling wild stories just like his grandfather had.
Burton made the film, written by John August and adapted from Daniel Wallace’s novel, shortly after the death of his own father. Steven Spielberg was at one point supposed to direct, which is one of the least surprising imaginable film facts.
What An Ending
Big Fish is on the very short list of my all-time favorite movies, and its last 15 minutes are about as magical and perfect as American filmmaking gets. I bawled my eyes out the first time I saw it in the theater, and its ending is one of those handful of movie scenes – along with the intro of Up, the last few minutes of Field of Dreams,the “Sparkplug Minuet” scene in The Royal Tenenbaums, Miguel singing “Remember Me” inCoco, and yes, the final scene of Juno – that will never not leave me in tears.
…its ending is one of those handful of movie scenes – along with the intro of Up…that will never not leave me in tears.
Watching it again recently – for the first time since beginning a father myself – I was struck by how well Big Fish holds up. Sure, there are a few things that date things a bit – Edward’s pursuit of Sandra is a bit stalker-ish, as was often the custom of older movies, and there’s some weird stuff in which he meets the character of Jenny when she’s a little girl, and that character grows up to be Bonham-Carter, who’s actually older than MacGregor. I’m also wondering whatever became of younger female lead Alison Lohman, who starred in 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, and pretty much fell off the radar after that.
But despite all of that, most of Big Fish is timeless and it’s as powerful today as it was back in 2003. Not only that, but it very much stands out in Tim Burton’s otherwise mediocre 21st century filmography.
Big Fish followed Burton’s disastrous 2001 Planet of the Apes remake. After Big Fish, Burton essentially made the same movie over and over again for a decade: A seemingly endless series of second or third-generation remakes, always starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. Sure, one was called Alice in Wonderland, another was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and another was Dark Shadows. But they all blended together, and not in a good way.
The only truly inspired Burton film of this period was the 2007 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, macabre material for which Burton seemed perfectly suited. It’s far from perfect – Bonham Carter was one of several actors who wasn’t quite up to the complex Sondheim couplets – but it’s still a rare instance of the movies actually knowing what to do with the great composer’s work.
…Burton essentially made the same movie over and over again for a decade: A seemingly endless series of second or third-generation remakes, always starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter.
Burton had slightly more success with his animated films – Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, and even made an above-average original live action movie with 2014’s art world drama Big Eyes. His last film was 2016’s lightly regarded children’s literature adaptation, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and while next up is another remake, coming next year, of Disney’s Dumbo. I was skeptical, but the trailer has its moments – and like Big Fish, it casts Danny DeVito as the ringmaster of a circus.
I’ve long wished for Burton to ditch the Depp/Bonham-Carter/intellectual property template and get back to personal, unique, surprising filmmaking. Perhaps one day he will.
It wasn’t a huge hit and it didn’t win any Oscars, but since its release, Big Fish has been mostly well-regarded, emerging as something of a cable TV staple. There was even a Broadway musical adaptation, which opened in October of 2013, although it closed less than three months later, and I never got to see it.
The Real Edward Bloom
Earlier this year, a semi-viral news story brought Burton’s film to mind. When a North Carolina man named Rick Stein died in October, his family published a satirical obituary stating that Stein had escaped from his hospital room in order to steal a plane and flee across the Atlantic Ocean, and that Stein’s colorful life was so mysterious that none of his friends or relatives actually knew what he did for a living, but that he used the alias “Juan Morefore DeRoad.”
It was essentially Big Fish, especially the ending:
“That is one story. Another story is that Rick never left the hospital and died peacefully with his wife and his daughter holding tightly to his hands.”