Love Letters to Film: Big Fish

Big Fish is a sweeping fairytale narrative. A film about a man, a friend, a husband and a father. A film that I love for all of its simplicity and unwavering wonder. Tim Burton directed this magical fairytale, based on the book “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” by writer/illustrator Daniel Wallace. The film is funny, sweepingly romantic, hilarious and heartbreaking. Every time I watch this film, I laugh, cry and fall a little more in love with it.

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In the final days in the life of Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), his son Will (Billy Crudup) is struggling to understand a father that he barely knows. Will’s knowledge of his father is confined to the tall tales that he’s been told about the life, love and losses of a young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor). The stories he tells are so outrageous and exaggerated, that Will can’t separate his father from his fiction.

“In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn’t always make sense and most of it never happened… but that’s what kind of story this is. “

Tim Burton uses bright colours and soft lighting to give a dream-like quality to Edward’s stories – bringing life and warmth to incredible tales with memorable and delightfully weird characters. The cast of this film is exceptional, with every player serving a vital role in the myth of Edward Bloom’s life. Billy Crudup does an exceptional job as the closed-off son, Jessica Lange is graceful and completely elegant, and Albert Finney truly steals the show.

Edward Bloom is a joyous, wonderful character. Full of undeniable charisma. When we meet a young Edward Bloom, we learn that he’s always been a big fish in a small pond. The brave boy who faced the town witch, the star athlete in high school, the man who single-handedly saved the town from a fire. Edward decides to leave his small town to see the rest of the world, citing the fact that his body, and his small town cannot contain his ambition.

One of his first adventures involves saving a town from a giant (whom he quickly befriends). The giant, Karl, represents Edward’s giant ambition, and serves as his key for leaving his small town behind. Through their travels, Karl and Edward reach a fork in the road, both literally and figuratively. They are faced with a paved and easy road, and a difficult and treacherous path. Ever the optimist, Edward takes the road less travelled. Edward doesn’t choose the easy way out. He works for everything he has. This is where so much of Tim Burton’s genius shines through. There are so many metaphors for life, choices and the unknown – but none of these themes are ever handled in a heavy handed fashion. The story flows, with all of its hidden meanings and messages, without distracting us from Edward’s tall tale.

Past the perilous path, Edward comes upon the town of Specter. The town, where people are happy and life is perfect. Edward is told that he’s early, that he’s not due in Specter for some time. He’s also told that people never leave Specter. Edward creates a path of his own, leaving the perfect and isolated world of Specter to face the real world. He finds that he’ll never be happy with perfection. It’s imperfection that makes a man.

Upon reuniting with Karl, the two set off to join the circus. This is where Edward finds the love of his life, Sandra (played by Alison Lohman and later by the beautiful Jessica Lange). This is one of my favourite moments of this entire film. It’s so romantic, and lovely. A real fairy tale.

Ewan McGregor plays young Edward Bloom with such sincerity; you can’t help but root for him. Edward vows to learn everything there is to know about Sandra, and marry her. It’s a brilliant part of the film. All of Edward’s information comes from his employer Amos the circus ringmaster (played by Danny DeVito). Amos gives limited information like “she likes daffodils” and “she likes music”. It’s slow-going, until one night, Edward discovers Amos’ secret….he’s a werewolf. In payment for keeping his dark secret, Amos reveals that Sandra is attending college nearby. Using his new found information, Edward finally gets to meet the woman of his dreams.

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The audience is asked to suspend their belief, to trust in the stories that Edward tells, to take them as an exaggeration of a normal life. The tales of Edward’s life are told as a series of flashbacks, painted in bright colours, and soft lighting. It seems dream-like. While Will becomes increasingly frustrated with his father’s “lies”, his pregnant fiancée Josephine (Marion Cotillard) basks in the incredulity of Edward’s stories. The audience has the same choice. Do we side with Will, practical, trying to get to the facts of his father’s life, or do we feel like Josephine, swept up in the fantasy?

We learn more about Edward, his tour in the army (which is incredibly entertaining, and plays out like a comic book), his love-filled marriage, his short-lived time as a criminal (a hilarious interlude with Steve Buschemi), his return to a now imperfect Specter, and his life as a father.

One of the stories that define Will’s life, is that of the day of his birth. It’s the story that Edward loves. The story that Will hates. The story of a really big fish. We’re told that on the day that Will was born, Edward’s wedding ring was stolen by a very big fish. Edward proceeded to catch the uncatchable fish to get back his wedding band. He missed the delivery. Will later learns that the real version of story; that his father was away on business, he couldn’t make it back in time, and that he was sorry to have missed it.

“I suppose if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one involving a fish and a wedding ring, I might choose the fancy version. But that’s just me.”

In the final hours of his father’s life, Will comes to the realization that the stories are a torch being handed over to a new father. To fill his son’s head full of nonsense only to have him turn out perfectly fine.

“Ed Bloom: Havin’ a kid changes everything. There’s burping, the midnight feeding, and the changing.

Will Bloom: You do any of that?

Ed Bloom: No. But I hear it’s terrible. Then you spend years trying to corrupt and mislead this child, fill his head with nonsense, and still it turns out perfectly fine.

Will Bloom: You think I’m up for it?

Ed Bloom: You learned from the best. “

The final moments of the film a heartbreaking and uplifting in equal terms. They are the best moments of the film. Having been told the story of Edward Bloom’s life, his son is given the chance to finish it, in true artistic flourish. Bringing together the larger than life characters that he’s heard about his entire life, Will weaves a final adventure for this father that is triumphant and fitting.

“A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.”

I’ve seen this film so many times, and it hits me in a different way every time. I’ve cried tears of sadness and joy over this film (emotional rollercoaster!). At the end, I often need a few minutes to process. It reminds me of my own relationship with my grandfather. A story teller in his own right – a man who lived an incredible life. I remember my grandfather through the stories he told. They help me keep a piece of him with me. Even with the addition of werewolves, giants, and witches – the film creates such a strong emotional connection with its audience through themes of life, ambition, adventure and love.

Big Fish tells a story that deserves to be shared.

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