Twenty-Five Days of Feelings: Day Twenty-One

This year I’m undergoing a bit of an experiment: Thirty straight days of doing/watching/listening to/reading something that makes me feel – however fleetingly – like an actual human being, in the hopes that this will thaw a layer of ice off my frozen shriveled little heart, and allow me to not be such a buzzkill this year. So let’s get to it.

Day Twenty-One: Big Fish

Here’s the deal: Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and I have a complicated relationship. By which I mean “I like Tim Burton movies that don’t have Johnny Depp in them, and I like Johnny Depp movies that don’t involve Tim Burton,” at least generally speaking. There are exceptions – Alice in Wonderland, or the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies for example. Basically it means I like Alice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach. 

And Big Fish.

Big Fish is the story of a father and a son. It’s about death, but also much more about life. It’s about lies, and also about truth. It’s a fairy tale, and it’s also got a deeply human core. It’s really kind of a masterpiece.

Will Bloom (just now getting the importance of that name, sadly), gets a call one day that his father, Edward, is dying, so he goes home to spend time with him. Edward and Will don’t really get along, because Will is tired of all the stories his father has told over the years – stories which Will believes are all lies. He no longer believes that his father has any real truth to him. What ensues is the story of Edward’s life (as he tells it), which involves witches, giants, werewolves, conjoined twins, mermaids, circuses, mysterious Stepford towns, and of course, a really Big Fish.

There are a LOT of things to love about this movie. First of all is the cast. You’ve got Ewan McGregor as young Edward, and he is just about as charming as possible, whether it’s befriending everyone he meets, working at a circus just to learn a new fact about the love of his life each month, or fighting wars. Albert Finney plays old Edward, and he does a great job of bringing the myth into reality. We see young Edward in him, but also the weight of age and sickness. Marion Cotillard plays Will’s wife, who is curious, somewhat innocent, and willing to push Will. Billy Crudup plays Will, and he does a really great job conveying the bitterness you can take into adulthood when you have a parent you resent. Danny DeVito, Helena Bonham Carter, and Steve Buscemi also do fantastically with their somewhat smaller parts. But for me the standout performance was Jessica Lange as Edward’s wife Sandra, and Alison Lohman as her young counterpart. They both lend a great deal of weight to their performances, and every time they cry in the movie I cry right along with them.

Then there’s the visual component of Big Fish. Have you ever seen Sweeney Todd? You know when Mrs. Lovett imagines her future with Sweeney Todd? And everything is super-saturated and the colors are ca-razzy? All the story parts of Big Fish are like that. It’s like Pushing Daisies up in here. Which is absolutely perfect. This is a movie about tales. Fairy tales. Myths. Archetypes. And if there’s one thing Tim Burton can do, it’s create mood through visuals. I just wish he’d do more fairy tale and less gothic nightmare. But this movie thrives visually. There’s a beautiful scene where Edward sees Sandra for the first time, and time literally stops. Or when he fills Auburn’s quad with her favorite flowers. There’s a town that reminds me of the Lotus Eaters from The Odyssea. The lights glow more than they should, and the grass is greener than it should be. It’s so perfect it becomes creepy. But what shocks me is how much Burton nails the quieter moments, like when Young Sandra hears that her husband died in Korea. Or when Old Sandra gets into the tub fully-clothed with her husband who feels like he’s drying up (side-effect of treatment). The movie balances quiet and loud really well, which is an underrated ability.

I could keep going on, honestly. Danny Elfman turns in a fantastic performance. The use of archetype is excellent, especially if you’ve read things like The Odyssea or other quest epics. It plays with genre, ranging wildly from Fantasy to Crime Drama and back to Horror and RomCom. There’s symbolism, and a lot of things coming full circle. But by far the most important part of this movie is the relationship between a father and a son.

We all have different relationships with our fathers. Some weren’t there from the beginning. Some left halfway through. Some were always there but distant. Some were weak, and others were too strong. Some were idiots, and some were intimidating geniuses. Some were liars. But I don’t know that any of us have perfect relationships with our fathers – not all the time. And even if you do, we’re all going to lose our fathers at some point. So this movie is something a lot of people can relate to. It’s about reconciling the Man and the Myth – what you’ve heard about him and from him, with what really happened. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about looking for Truth even in the little lies. It’s about meeting someone halfway, and walking in their shoes, and finally trying to understand them.

This is a movie about quests. Quests to make your fortune. Quests to get the girl of your dreams. Quests to fulfill dreams and rebuild towns. Quests for Truth. And when you go on a quest, you’re going to go in different directions than you planned. Life is going to lead you to circuses, and wars, and heartbreaks. But it can also lead you to wives, and children, and stories that will live on long after you die. Stories about giants, and witches, and werewolves.

And Big Fish.

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