BIG FISH directed by Tim Burton, written by John August from the Daniel Wallace novel, produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, with Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange and Helena Bonham Carter. 125 minutes. A Columbia release. Opens Wednesday (December 10). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 96. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Big Fish marks a change of pace for Tim Burton. It's not that it abandons fantasy, just that it's set in a more prosaic universe - the back roads and rivers of Alabama. Billy Crudup's William Bloom returns from Paris to see his dying father (Albert Finney), Edward, who's spent his life enhancing his history with tall tales. Big Fish stretches across decades, and Ewan McGregor plays Edward as a young man off on fabulous adventures, which leads to my one real objection to the film. It's set largely in Alabama and the characters are all Alabamans, yet none of the principal actors - with the exception of Jessica Lange, who's done enough Tennessee Williams over the years to manage a convincing accent - makes more than a glancing attempt to sound Southern.
Finney uses the Anthony Hopkins device, passing off his all-purpose rumble as an American accent.
While Daniel Wallace's novel and Burton's film are largely fantastic, they're both set in a real place and work in a distinctive regional tradition. It's not Faulkner's Southern gothic, but it is a Southern picaresque, so it would be nice if it had a few Southerners in it, especially since much of it is set 40-odd years ago, when the accents were stronger than they are today.
It's also, just for the sake of fantasy, a deep American South that is almost entirely white, aside from Robert Guillaume as a doctor who delivered a white child in an Alabama hospital way back when.
That said, it's both an amiable fable, with giants, giant catfish, lost villages, a witch, a poet-turned-bank-robber-turned-financier and a slightly annoying son-father relationship. William Bloom wants to know who his father really is, being a hard-headed reporter, and doesn't seem to realize that his father is his lies, fabulations and evasions, which suggests the son is not really as bright as he's supposed to be.
Aside from the accent thing, Big Fish is highly enjoyable and visually lush, and never swerves off into the art-direction overload that's been one of Burton's trademarks in films like Beetlejuice and the Batmans. Yet a bit of that excess wouldn't have been amiss in this film, which really comes to life when McGregor wanders into a dark forest that holds a bright secret.