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BIG FISH

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito
Director: Tim Burton
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 125 Minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2004

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

Film ****

Tim Burton is arguably one of cinema's most outstanding and original cinematic visionary masters. Every single film he makes manages to make a long lasting impression because of the skill and all around imagination of which Burton applies. He creates stories and settings that simply impossible to forget, and given his terrific track record, that's seriously saying something.

Big Fish is one of the director's strongest triumphs to date, as well as one of his more soft and subtle tales. Who knew that Burton, having gone to terrific cinematic extremes with Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow, and Planet of the Apes, had it in him to make an emotionally driven epic character piece? It isn't just any kind of character piece, as it is mixed in with the fantasy-like wonders which make Burton's films so unique. And in the case of this movie, the whole idea of fantasy is a very important one.

At the heart of the story of Big Fish is that of a father and son story. William Bloom (Billy Crudup) is a man who grew up not knowing entirely much about his father, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), other than through the endless array of amazing stories told by him throughout his childhood. After years of hearing the same kinds of tales, each of which William finds to be not a single bit true, he moves away to work and live in Paris with his wife, and some amount of time goes by where there is no communication between the two.

When he receives word that his father his slowly dying, William returns home to be by his side. Although he is expecting the worst to come, William requests one bit of closure before the end finally arrives, to discover his true father for once. It's vital to William, who's about to have a kid of his own, that he know once and for all if his father was as real as any other person, or telling lies about himself all of his life.

In between segments of this story, we are plunged into the incredible life of Edward Bloom, as the man reveals various stories about his unique journey as a younger man. Bloom, portrayed in younger years by Ewan McGregor, insists that ever since he was a young boy, he was intended for larger things in life. Growing up in the small town of Ashton, Young Edward had his hands in every thing one could imagine. He was the star player on his high school football, baseball, and basketball teams, in addition to garnering most impressive academic achievements.

As for danger, Edward laughs in the face of it. When the town is put in fear over the arrival of a monstrous giant, Edward immediately volunteers to confront the larger than average figure in the gothic woods he lives in. He soon inspires confidence in the giant, telling him he shouldn't be afraid of being big in a town so small.

As his incredible journey continues, he ends up in the breezy community of Spectre, a place where everything is beautiful and the people are a little bit overly cheerful and nice. There, he meets aspiring poet Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi), whose poems show promise if not total completion. The time he spends in Spectre is wonderful, yet Bloom yearns to journey more, even if he doesn't expect to turn up some place better.

Young Bloom is soon struck with love at first sight when he catches a glance at Sandra (Alison Lohman), at a circus. Burton's illustration of the belief that time stops when you first see the love of your life is an ingenious and utterly beautiful cinematic moment. If anything, this sequence alone demonstrates the superb power of cinema.

Edward has seen his purpose in life, which is to make her his wife. He then makes a deal with the circus owner Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito), who says that if he works for him he promises to tell Edward one important detail about Sandra at the end of each month. He does just that, and with every detail Bloom discovers, he falls more in love with her. Though it requires him to jump through some hoops to finally win here over, Edward eventually succeeds in his purpose. In grown up years, Sandra is played by Jessica Lange, and I never realized until now just how striking she and young Alison Lohman resemble one another.

Among the other crucial events in Young Edward's life include a brief bit of service in World War II, where he meets female Siamese twins who happen to perform musical numbers during a Red Army talent show, an unexpected run in with poet Winslow during a bank robbery, and an attempt to restore some beauty in the life of a woman whom knows Edward from somewhere in the past. What's to be drawn from these stories, true or made up, is that Young Bloom was a man who loved helping others in need.

Although it's understandable why some critics called Big Fish a little uneven, the magic in both the storytelling and stunning visual power cannot be denied, at least from my perspective. The film's climatic moments, where one last bit of storytelling is unleashed in an unexpected form, are indeed some of the most powerful segments that Burton has ever delivered, leading up to a much heartfelt story's end.

Big Fish, if anything, could be considered Forrest Gump with a Tim Burton touch. Like that film, this is a most outstanding achievement, both in the areas of story and the look, for which Burton never fails his audience. Like all of his work prior to this, Big Fish will resonate with you long after watching it. In addition, the film also deserves to be recognized for conveying something important, which is the need for elements of both magic and mystery in storytelling.

Video ****

2004 has already seen some truly outstanding DVD presentations, but I am here to announce that Columbia Tri Star's handling of this film has resulted in the first seriously amazing viewing experience of the year. From beginning to end, the visual magic that was already alive in the movie has been enhanced by a glorious anamorphic presentation, resulting in probably one of the most incredible transfers you're ever likely to come across. Both the cinematography by Philippe Rousselot and the production design by Dennis Gassner help to create a visual splendor for the senses which the video presentation heightens even further. Colors are ever so magnificent to look at, as they always are in a Tim Burton film. If anything, a masterful handling of all around detail and superb image clarity. CTS has delivered a grand disc for the time capsule.

Audio ****

Here's a movie that's got so much going on with it, that it's reasonable why the 5.1 mix is such a strong one. The film's technical workings come into play in a number of quite effective areas, including Danny Elfman's always engaging music score, as well as many scenes involving Young Edward's adventures. His encounter with the giant and the scene of his bit in WWII are indeed the strongest points. Dialogue is clean and clear all the way, and the dynamic range is sharp and continuous as it can get. Quite simply, a remarkably done presentation.

Features ****

CTS unveils a nicely done package of extras for this release. Included is a commentary track by Tim Burton. Also featured are a series of featurettes, which are divided into two sections; The Character's Journey and The Filmmakers' Path. The first area includes the featurettes "Edward Bloom at Large", "Amos at the Circus", and "Fathers and Sons". The second section features the featurettes "Tim Burton: Storyteller", "A Fairytale World", "Creature Features", and "The Author's Journey". Lastly, there is an interactive quiz called The Finer Points, a trailer gallery and a soundtrack spot.

Summary:

Big Fish marks not only a cinematic triumph for Tim Burton, but a monumental DVD presentation that is sure to be cherished for years to come, just as Edward Bloom's incredible stories are.