Burton remains without question one of the most progressive directors working in Hollywood today. He has carved a niche for himself somewhere between the mainstream and the avant guard, in that nebulous region of cinema occupied by artists whose worldview is so unconventional that it attains popular appeal. His films consistently challenge the imagination (“Beetlejuice”), push forward the techniques of filmmaking (“Nightmare Before Christmas”), bring to life previously unthinkable characters (“Edward Scissorhands”), and pay homage to the forbearers of Burton’s own creative impulses (“Ed Wood”). Taken as a whole, his body of work focuses on the confrontation between the fantastic and the realistic, and the consequences of these two worlds intermingling.
“Big Fish,” Burton’s latest effort, is no different. And yet somehow it is not quite the same. On the surface it would appear to have all the elements of a classic Burton film: fairy-tale characters, flights of imagination, forces of nature (as well as the supernatural), and far-fetched situations. The movie is, in fact, so packed with fanciful episodes that it begins to feel like a loose adaptation of “The Odyssey,” told from the mouth of an aging and bed-ridden bard named Ed Bloom (played by Albert Finney).
The narrative is structured simplistically: Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) visits his father upon hearing news of his deteriorating condition. Will begs his dad to tell him his true life story, in order to set straight the conflated tales of adventure that he fed Will as a little boy. Will feels like he doesn’t know his father at all, and that now is the last chance he will have to learn what the man is really like. Yet Will’s pregnant wife also comes along for the trip and, seizing the opportunity provided by a new audience, Bloom launches into his old stories, insisting that they are the gospel truth (or something very similar).
Ewan McGregor takes over as a young Ed Bloom and lives out these mythical journeys, confronting one challenge after another with “Forrest Gump”-like perseverance. True to form, McGregor turns in an endearing performance as the unflappable, happy-go-lucky protagonist, armed with the foreknowledge of his own death and therefore undeterred even in the face of almost certain demise. Unfortunately McGregor steals so much of the spotlight that he overshadows the staple of Burton-eque characters who also hold real potential to shine. The misunderstood giant, Karl (Matthew McGrory), the werewolf/ringmaster, Amos Calloway (played down-the-line by Danny DeVito), and the uninspired poet, Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi) all suffer from too little attention, thus underdevelopment, thus obscurity. Even Ed’s destined wife-to-be, after whom he spends most of the movie doting, falls by the wayside in the wake of McGregor’s portrayal. The story is left as a one-man show. This saps its “This is Your Life” ending of any profound sentimentality that it tries so hard to elicit, since all that remains are the characters who we know the least about.
Interestingly, narrative has never been Burton’s strong point. The common critique throughout his career has been that he emphasizes style over substance, producing beautiful images but ignoring the intricacies of good storytelling. “Edward Scissorhands” and “Beetlejuice” are cases in point: visually stunning yet odd and unsophisticated tales more suited to younger audiences who don’t go in for detailed drama anyway. Burton’s eye-catching mise-en-scene has been his saving grace.
With “Big Fish,” curiously enough, the opposite holds true — story prevails over images. The narrative proves far richer than the visual style that depicts it. Even though the story falls short of its potential, it still provides enough cinematic material that the film should be pretty to watch, at least. Yet it isn’t. With few exceptions (most notably the daffodil scene and the mermaid sequence, both of which are awash in spectacular color and brilliantly composed), “Big Fish” comes across as dull and flat. It lacks any of the visual inventiveness that audiences have come to expect from Burton. The images aren’t as vibrant or creative enough to complement the fantastical tale, causing a schism between form and content that diminishes both. Perhaps this fault rests on the shoulders of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (“Antwone Fisher,” “Planet of the Apes”). Perhaps Burton was hoping that the story itself would compensate for any cinematic shortcomings. Or perhaps the master has lost his touch — knock on wood.
For the diehard Burton fan there is a way to rationalize the film’s inadequacy. After all, it is a story about the disjuncture between — and reconciliation of — fantasy and reality. The muted visual style can be interpreted as a thematic choice on Burton’s part, meant to depict the uncertainty about what is real and what is not. If the film were too color-coded this dichotomy would be less ambiguous, and in turn the father/son crisis would be less compelling.
But rationalization is not what Burton asks for. Throughout his career he has created imaginary characters and realms, never questioning their validity. They augment the known world and provide a glimpse of alternative lives and spaces — ways of existence beyond what audiences can experience outside of his films. The real and the fictive don’t have to explain themselves to one another, or compromise in order to fit, but simply to be and let be. Yet “Big Fish,” as the title suggests, can’t find a place for itself anywhere: neither the pond of reality, nor the ocean of myth.
Ultimately “Big Fish” fails to impress. The film leaves the viewer feeling unsatisfied, with the irrepressible sense that something was missed — that there could have been, and should have been, more to enjoy. It will contend for awards because of its star power, but history will not place it among Burton’s best.