On another level, though, Big Fish feels like Burton's most straightforward and conventional movie ever. Strip away all the baroque detours and you'll find a simple saga about estranged sons making peace with absent fathers, a scenario of familiar Hollywood sentimentality straight out of any number of so-so movies with names most of us have already forgotten. Strangely enough, despite the profusion of surreal sequences, Big Fish is almost completely lacking in that patented Burton Edge found in films like Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice or even Sleepy Hollow.
It's not that Big Fish is a bad movie -- it's not -- it's just that almost anyone could have made it. The performances are solid; the themes and emotions are all properly weighty and clearly communicated, and individual sequences are even striking. But the film lacks personality.
It's a meticulously crafted movie and, in its way, an immensely enjoyable one, but that instantly identifiable, auteurist hand behind Ed Wood and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is almost nowhere to be found. You might say that Big Fish represents a more mature Burton, a now nearly fully domesticated filmmaker capable of creating mellower movies that don't feel the pressing need to assert their originality with every frame. Think of it as a kinder, gentler quirkiness.
And so we get Burton's oddly (but not too oddly) charming take on fathers, sons, stages of life and storytelling -- a coming-of-age film that might be mostly the filmmaker celebrating and mourning the passing of his own unnaturally extended childhood. Big Fish has the unmistakable feel of a fairy tale, but one told by a grown-up.
The father figure looming over Big Fish is Edward Bloom (the venerable Albert Finney), a giant of a man -- at least in his own mind -- whose stature all but demands the Paul Bunyan-esque tall tales told in Big Fish. Bloom's epic, obsessive tale-spinning (most of which stars himself) continues even on his deathbed, where he's attended by his faithful wife (Jessica Lange), and by his adult son William (Billy Crudup), an all-business sort long resentful of his father's grandstanding and egocentric fabrications. As if this scenario weren't already sufficiently charged, Burton and screenwriter John August give William a pregnant wife and the prospect of impending fatherhood, all but ensuring the younger Bloom's eventual reassessment of his own dear, soon-to-be-departed dad.
Like that other famous Bloom, Leopold in Joyce's Ulysses, the Blooms of Big Fish are engaged in an upriver journey, a long, winding road of memory, invention and stories-within-stories. Joyce's Bloom was searching for, among other things, a son who doesn't exist; Burton's father and son are looking for reflections of themselves in each other.
The self-perpetuating cycle of tales in Big Fish approaches 1001 Arabian Nights dimensions, with the endlessly chatty, elder Bloom recasting episodes of his life as super-sized, mythic anecdotes that recall everything from Joyce's Bloom to Beowulf. Young Edward (beautifully played by Ewan McGregor) repeatedly looks death right in the eye, rescues poor little pups from burning buildings, hunts down enormous monsters in their lairs, single-handedly takes on the entire Chinese army and befriends all manner of creatures, from witches to giants to con artists. The film's world is one of casual magic, where no one thinks twice about a Siamese Twins singing sensation, or a woman transforming into a fish, or a too-perfect village straight out of The Prisoner or A Boy and His Dog, where no one ever leaves.
There's always a taller tale to be told, though -- a bigger fish story, a more gigantic giant -- and, like Edward himself, the movie becomes a little wearisome in its constant one-upping of itself. The fabrications and Fellini-esque circuses are all charming enough, but after a non-stop barrage of them, a fed-up William determines to discover if there's somebody real hiding behind all of his father's bullshit.
Much of Big Fish's second half is a deconstruction of its first half, taking the form of a Citizen Kane-like investigation in which William sets out to discover who his father really is. That's where things get interesting, but it's also where the movie begins bogging down in those audience-friendly Big Messages and Big Emotions that seem so curiously out of place in a Tim Burton movie.
As William retraces his father's steps, revisiting his old stomping grounds and seeking out witnesses to what may or may not have happened, the truth is revealed to be anything but the simple black-and-white affair that any of us expected. What William discovers is that even his father's most over-arching conceits and purely fantastic fictions contain an essence of truth, an essence more valuable than what might be gleaned from a more literal version. Dad, of course, was right: reality is overrated. And all of those impossibly tall tales told over the course of the movie eventually come to resemble some enormous, sweet onion, with endless layers of story to be peeled away before getting to a core of meaning.
Big Fish isn't particularly subtle about much of this, and it occasionally verges on both the maudlin and the pretentious, but the movie deserves some major credit. In its way, the film attempts to tackle some very large questions beginning with the very nature of art itself, ultimately hammering us with lofty statements about man telling stories in order to become immortal. It's all a bit much, sure, but the pretense is leavened by the realization that this is, after all, just a fish story, and one being told by the world's most unreliable narrator (that would be Bloom, not Burton).
There's much else to recommend Big Fish, too, beginning with Burton's apparently sincere effort to put his strengths and eccentricities to the service of a project that attempts to reach out to the masses, a movie "with heart," as they say. If it doesn't quite pan out that way, it's not for lack of trying. For all its flaws, there's no denying that Big Fish is a very special sort of love letter from the filmmaker to fathers and sons everywhere, to stories in all times and places, to the movies, to life itself. And while it's not exactly Burton's 8 1/2 (something the movie sometimes seems to be striving towards), Big Fish is memorable as only a well-meaning love letter can be.
Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at email@example.com, or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.