Thursday, December 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tim Burton's fertile imagination is in full bloom in 'Big Fish'

Seattle Times movie critic

Tim Burton's father/son fantasy "Big Fish" is a beguiling confection that ultimately eludes its audience. Like its title metaphor, it's a shimmering fish that darts away from capture, dancing in and out of a waiting pair of hands in some sparkling river — a slippery, never-quite-reachable prize. You keep waiting for the movie to settle down and find its pace; it never quite does, but the effort's always watchable.

At its heart, "Big Fish" is a story about storytelling; about a father's need to spin his life story into a colorful tale, to be hero of his own narrative. Albert Finney, puffy and garrulously charming, plays Edward Bloom, an elderly man who at the end of his life is seeking closure with his estranged son Will (Billy Crudup). The two men see life rather differently, complains Edward — if Will were to tell his father's life story, he'd give "all of the facts, none of the flavor." As Will reluctantly sits at his father's bedside, encouraged by his mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange), Edward weaves the threads of his autobiography, with flavor to spare.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Big Fish," with Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman. Directed by Tim Burton, from a screenplay by John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace. 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 for a fight scene, some images of nudity and a suggestive reference. Several theaters.

And it's quite a tale — beginning with skidding down a hospital hallway as a too-slick infant, continuing with stories of witches, ghost towns, circuses, idealized young love, a wistful giant, and a pair of conjoined twins who sing at a USO show, and ending ... well, "it's a surprise ending," Ed tells his son. "Wouldn't want to ruin it for you." Fair enough.

Burton's fabled imagination runs wild with this material, and "Big Fish" often achieves a whimsical, poetic beauty. In his travels, Ed (played, as a young man, by Ewan McGregor) arrives at a ghost town named Spectre, all emerald-green grass and perfectly whitewashed storefronts, where nobody wears shoes; their footwear dangles jauntily overhead on a wire as the inhabitant's pale feet glide through the velvet of the lawn.

At the circus, presided over by Danny DeVito as a devilish ringmaster in red, Ed finds work and meets the love of his life, Sandra (played in the flashback scenes by Alison Lohman, who looks exactly like a soft-focus Jessica Lange). When he sees her, the moment freezes, with popcorn hanging in the air like snowflakes — he's in love, in that irresistibly heartachy movie way, and he sets out to win her.

Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (an Oscar winner for "A River Runs Through It") gives these scenes a slightly bleached-out quality; a fantasy pallor, as Ed stands in a canary-yellow sea of daffodils and pleads for Sandra's love. It's gorgeous, even when he gets punched in the face by Sandra's current boyfriend — he lies among the daffodils and grins a toothy, bloody smile.

"Big Fish" has the meandering quality that many yarns do; John August's screenplay seems more like a series of anecdotes than a fully realized drama. But it's often enchanting, particularly as Will slowly learns to tell a big fish story of his own. Ed's stories will live on, just as that river does in the final shots, with that elusive fish gliding and jumping in the early-morning mist, lovelier than any factual retelling of it could be.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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