Big Fish Review

Based on the eponymous novel, Big Fish tells, in a typically Southern style, the tale of one Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor & Albert Finney) from Ashton, Alabama. As he lays dying, his estranged son (Billy Crudup), who grew up believing his tall tales to be gospel truth, returns to seek the complete truth from him. Truth however has never been something Ed has strived for in his life, preferring to tell a whimsical, magical autobiography in its stead and, unsurprisingly, shows some resilience sacrificing all these fictive lives in his hour of darkness. Instead he chooses to continue to regale his daughter-in-law (Marion Cotillard) with some more tall-tales, half-truths and downright lies much to his poor son's exasperation.

Tim Burton is something of an enigma - he's managed to make even his most unashamedly commercial (and dire) movies quite entertaining thanks to his inventiveness and production design (I have a soft spot for all of his flops - yes, I actually enjoyed Mars Attacks and Ed Wood). His latest offering aims to hold that middle ground between artistic integrity as well as unashamed heart-string tugging. Self-made men, moral rectitude prevailing over evil and small-town heroes are all elements of the great American mythology and Burton treats them with sufficient irony to avoid Forrest Gumpiness but enough genuine feeling to avoid the equally sapping effect of cynicism. Big Fish easily avoids these pitfalls partly thanks to Ewan McGregor's outstanding performance as the young Ed along with Finney's grave presence as the dying Ed, but also due to his inspired visual style which once again permeates the whole film from the zany contraptions to the outlandish characters. By cleverly weaving in different American cinematic styles (heist movies, B-series horror flicks, Technicolour extravaganzas), the film becomes as much about America's own myth-making as it is about Ed's.

The cast, as usual with Burton, is filled with talent: Helena Bonham-Carter, Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi provide equally good performances as larger-than-life secondary characters along Ed's journey; Jesicca Lange - though maybe a little too young for the role - also fits in well as Ed's wife, giving her character both patience and strength in equal measure. McGregor manages with apparent ease to give Ed that Southern charm as well as that heart-on-the-sleeve zing making the character both likable and unrealistic. The film could have faltered with poor acting but the cast as a whole seem to be in tune with Burton's vision and none seem intent to hi-jack the movie for their own glory.

Though comparisons have been drawn with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie or - more bizarrely - The Barbarian Invasions (mostly due to their almost identical premises), Burton has clearly stamped Big Fish with his own particular style and it most likely will become one of the best films of his illustrious career.

The DVD:

The image:
Switching between Technicolor to washed out tones, the film changes so much that it's difficult to know exactly how it's supposed to look. I noticed one sequence suffered from a large amount of grain and slight print damage but I'm pretty certain that was added intentionally to age the material. The colours are a little somber at times but again I think that seems intentional. I didn't notice any unintentional flaws in the transfer and generally we are given a very good anamorphic transfer.

The sound

We get an English 5.1 mix which envelopes the viewer in Danny Elfman's score and uses surround effects when needed but usually sparingly. The voices tend to stay centred at the front. Glbally, it's a powerful but not excessively overwhelming experience.

The Extras

Featurettes: A total of seven featurettes are included (fullscreen transfer) - the first three take a look at various facets of the film's main character (9 mins, 5 mins, 8 mins) and contain spoilers. The other four look at the making of the film - the first looks at Tim Burton with interviews from the cast and himself (7 mins), the second looks at the set and production design (10 mins), another explores how the creatures were designed (7 mins) and the final interviews the book's author and what he thinks of the adaptation (8 mins). Globally, the featurettes are quite good but include far too extensive clips from the movie, making them more laborious to watch. An White Rabbit feature allows you to watch the featurettes at various points of the film but, frankly, that would be a very bad idea since they will spoil what's coming up!

Trivia Quizz: Answer all the questions correctly (and they are not easy!) and you will unlock an extra featurette. All the questions relate to Tim Burton's career and require a very good knowledge of the man in order to suceed - still you can try over and over again to get them right so unlocking the extra is pretty simple though a bit tedious.

Director's Commentary: DVD extra fans will often tell you that Tim Burton is the worst commentator ever - his performance on Sleepy Hollow setting the benchmark of poor. Well, it's nice to see people learn from their mistakes as someone had the excellent idea of adding Mark Salisbury (editor of Burton on Burton) to prompt Burton and keep him speaking. This he does admirably - Burton speaks fluently and comes up with lots of interesting facts and information about the making of the movie, the design, the message etc... He's actually really good at it! One problem I noticed was the occasional glitch in the soundtrack that caused it to repeat itself - a minor problem however.

At the hands of most directors, Big Fish would have been a Big Disappointment but Burton has worked him magic once again at teasing the best out of the story. I don't think the film is flawless but I can't really think of anything flawed about it - it achieves all it sets out to achieve and more. The DVD release is very good - though the extras are few, they are at least all watchable and with little padding.

You can view the official Big Fish micro site here.

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