"From the imagination of Tim Burton," the posters proudly proclaim -- glossing over the minor detail that "Big Fish" was actually written by John August and based on a book by Daniel Wallace. Even us fans have to admit that the word "imagination" and its derivatives get tossed around like dead halibut whenever Burton releases a film: His abysmal "Planet of the Apes" remake was a "reimagining," remember? At least Burton's star appears to be back on the ascendant. With "Apes," he turned already famous source material into a lousy movie that just about anybody could have made. "Big Fish," in contrast, turns lesser-known source material into a good movie that just about anybody could have made.
To be honest, there's really only one distinctly Burtonian aspect to this compendium of tall tales, and it isn't a positive one. His sense of pacing is still for shit, with scenes piling on top of each other languidly instead of building to some sort of dramatic climax. ("Is that it?" one wants to ask when another of his enjoyable vignettes fails to achieve emotional closure. "Are we done here?") That's not a drastic failing, though, in the context of "Big Fish," an anthology masquerading as a narrative. A certain episodic quality has to be expected in the story of Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), a chronic exaggerator nearing the end of a life that's become clouded in self-authored myth. Edward's gift for colorful obfuscation has gotten him estranged from his son, William (Billy Crudup), who long ago rejected his dad's fantasy-laden ramblings as selfish lunges for the spotlight. But in true Hollywood fashion, Edward's fatal illness sends William scurrying back to his side, determined to assemble a realistic mental image of a man he's only ever known as the hero of some grandiose fables. Hope for a reconciliation may lie in the realization that Edward's florid BS hasn't managed to drive off his understanding wife (Jessica Lange); increasingly, it's working its carny-barking magic on William's own spouse (Marion Cotillard).
The homecoming plot, however, is merely a frame on which Burton (or whoever) can hang dramatizations of Edward's improbable yarns. In these highly embellished "memories," the ailing ex-salesman recalls himself as a footloose wanderer (Ewan McGregor, perfectly cast), full of ambition and ready to meet an often-bizarre world on its own terms. Over the course of the young Edward's adventures, he encounters a misunderstood giant (Matthew McGrory), a precognitive witch (Helena Bonham Carter) with a glass eye, and an entire circus presided over by a conniving ringmaster (Danny DeVito, looking uncomfortably like Ron Jeremy). While these scenarios are rife with surrealistic potential, none of them is portrayed in a manner that betrays Burton's trademark visual style: No impossibly spindly creatures creep, Skellington-like, across the landscape. "Big Fish" is mostly the better for it. A string of Oyster Boy knockoffs could get tedious mighty quick, and their absence preserves the feeling that Edward's reminiscences are just odd enough to be based in truth. It also forces us to focus on the real significance of the stories, which is how they reflect Edward's inwardly held notions of prestige, fortitude and mortality.
The gradual coalescence of Edward's actual and fantasy worlds is the real revelation for Burton-watchers, taking the filmmaker into territory that's surprisingly complex and mature. He's always been good with actors (a trait that can't be claimed of his alleged peers, like Joe Dante), but the denouement of "Big Fish" shows an enriched awareness of adult motivation that, in time, may prove to be a viable replacement for the director's all-but-abandoned Gorey-isms. Maybe our boy Tim is finally growing up. Either that, or he's just being more careful about where he puts his "imagination."