By Jared M. Gordon
Big Fish – 2003 – dir. Tim Burton
Tim Burton’s Big Fish is an homage to everything that we were, everything that we are, and everything that we will be. What really bakes your noodle is the reveal that it’s all happening, every moment, all at once.
Based on the novel by mythology enthusiast Daniel Wallace (watch for a cameo of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces on Ed Bloom’s nightstand), Big Fish is a tale about everything big in our lives: the worlds of our childhood, the worlds of being in love, and the worlds of responsibility, maturity, death, and beyond.
The story of Big Fish and its nuanced, masterful screen adaptation succeeds because it follows the life of a person who could be any member of the audience. First love, employment, responsibility, service, family – all paths we take, many of us in the same way. What matters is how we look at what we do.
“In [your father’s] mind, there are two women: your mother and everyone else.”
Leaving home is defeating the giant. Struggling to find your first love is working at a circus. Marriage is catching the biggest fish in the river. Accomplishing the task for which you were meant: will you arrive in Spectre too early or too late? These have meaning, at least, to Edward Bloom. What are your metaphors?
It’s not Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney) the man who becomes immortal, but his way of thinking. It shouldn’t be only his son who’s left standing in the river. It must be each of us.
The entire film, scene by scene, seems to dialogue with itself:
Circus ringleader Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito) tells a young Edward Bloom, “You don’t have a plan, you don’t have a job, you don’t have anything except the clothes on your back.”
Several scenes later, we hear Bloom say, “Now I may not have much, but I have more determination then any man you’re ever likely to meet.”
Obstacles, whether in the form of jumping spiders, a childhood nemesis, or a military draft, pepper Edward Bloom’s experience. His biggest obstacle, of course, comes in the form of his own son, Will (Billy Crudup). Literal-minded and expecting a child of his own, Will seeks answers about his father’s life without realizing that he’s searching for his own myth, his own personal narrative.
In the scene with the thousands of daffodils, I always have the following hypothetical situation in mind: a girl watches the film and thinks, “How romantic!” But when a fellow in real life goes through the trouble, she can’t help but think, “Obsessive psycho!” Ladies, how many daffodils are too many?
As with any experience of art, which Big Fish certainly is, the question is how what we brought to it has changed as a result of experiencing it. Big Fish is one of those rare films (As Good as it Gets or Life is Beautiful being other examples) that have the potential to affect how you look at and live your life from thenceforth. How are you a big fish in a small pond? How will you avoid being caught? Or, by whom do you want to be caught? Big Fish asks big questions about a big deal.