Wed January 7, 2004
You may be ready to understand your parents better than you thought possible.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
A fable about a fabulist told by a fabled director. Tim Burton's "Big Fish" is an imaginative rendering of children's universal longing to know their parents fully before the final separation. Equally as important to anyone who tells stories, like creative parents, writers, and directors, is the film's depiction of the complex relationship between the storyteller and the audience. Burton carries both themes in his characteristically flamboyant ("Edward Scissorhands," "Batman") style that includes fairytales and outright magic realism. "The Wizard of Oz," "Fisher King," and "Princess Bride" come immediately to mind of other American films that have succeeded in a genre perfected by Latin artists.
Storyteller Edward (Albert Finney) is on his deathbed. His son, Will (Billy Crudup), who long ago discarded his dad's fabulous stories and his dad, now tries to understand who his dad is underneath those lies by questioning dad and searching family history for clues. The magical scenes of dad's meeting a giant and tree monsters in a forest, and conjoined singers at a Red Army talent show, experiencing an unreal but perfect town called Specter, and getting involved with a bizarre circus are successfully rendered by a director whose dark but lyrical side is well documented ("Nightmare Before Christmas, " "Sleepy Hollow"). The question about the truth of the stories becomes academic because son must meet dad on his fabulous terms or forever hold his peace.
As Ewan McGregor (the young Edward) did in "Moulin Rouge," he can walk between innocence and experience as well as any actor today. Albert Finney's Southern accent from his British mouth is flawless, just like his uncompromising take on a father whose tall tales demand respect for the wisdom they offer and the truth that may lurk underneath them. On the level that requires a d?tente between father and son, Burton marvelously takes no sides: When father asks son who he wants him to be, the melancholic truths that father may have hidden behind his stories all his life are balanced by the need for a son to accept a father on his terms, not the son's.
Burton is far less clear on the matter of the storyteller's relationship to the audience. It seems that if the listener suspends disbelief, the story will enrich the present and future with meanings heretofore hidden by the dull demands of the quotidian. A story about an elusive "big fish" becomes more than a child's fish tale; it reveals truths about ambition and cunning and generosity, with a subtle comment on the sanctity of marriage (a marriage ring is prominent, not far from the figurative subtext of "Lord of the Rings").
Even Burton's choice of actors underscores the conjunction of real and unreal: the actors in the different eras of the family's life look remarkably like their young or old characters, an uncanny touch to test our skepticism about all the tales. What's real and what is not matters little when you confront a parent you have never understood or a story you are struggling to tell. Homer's Odysseus travels to the world of giants and sea creatures as well in what turns out to be a journey into understanding himself as adventurer, storyteller, and husband. Burton is brilliant, maybe not Homer, but for the 21st century, he is the pre-eminently fabulous storyteller. The film's weakness of never letting us know why dad tells these endless stories can be borne only if you enjoy the tale and the journey; you may then be ready to understand your parents better than you thought possible.
As Will puts it, "In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth." We all could say the same.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.