5 reasons Big Fish was Tim Burton’s last great film

Forget Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie, 2003’s Big Fish was Tim Burton’s last truly great movie and here’s why

Tim Burton's Big Fish, released in 2003 and based on the book by Daniel Wallace
Tim Burton’s Big Fish, released in 2003 and based on the book by Daniel Wallace

He may still be the director of choice for 14-year-old girls in arm socks, Johnny Depp and the French, but for most of us that spark of creativity and outsider injustice that inspired Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, or even love of a damn good story behind Sleepy Hollow and The Nightmare Before Christmas is long gone, replaced by repetition on a theme – all of which reaches its nadir in 2012 with two films Tim Burton could have made 30 years ago (and in one case, did) – Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows.

There’s no disputing that the master of the macabre has presided over some entertaining films in the last decade, but compared to his early brand of freewheeling, idiosyncratic genius, he’s definitely in the twilight of his career – the retirement home for his creativity, where he simply repeats yesterday’s formula and prays for yesterday’s results.

We’re nailing this one to our flagpole: Tim Burton’s last truly great, emotionally engaging movie was 2003’s Big Fish, and here are five damn good reasons why:

Big Fish Ewan McGregor
Ewan McGregor versus a spider. Pretty much as creepy as it gets

1. It’s not full of contrived ghost-train spookiness

Once upon a time, Tim Burton’s whole ‘It’s Halloween every day!’ thing was new, fresh and chic. Now – as evidenced by two other ‘spooky’ animated films jostling up against his forthcoming Frankenweenie for our attention this autumn, Paranorman and Hotel Transylvania – it’s more of a well-established shtick that movie studios pin up on mood boards or cut to sizzle reels for investors. After 10-11 films of black and white stripes in a 16-film career, Big Fish is American Gothic rather than pantomime gothic; faded, rural Americana, its dark forests and carnival scenes washed out in an earthy retro tint rather than hallucinogenic and stylised. It feels genuine, and after a career specialising in the staged and the fake, it feels fresh.

Big Fish father
Albert Finney and Jessica Lange share an emotional scene

2. It’s actually emotionally powerful

Big Fish isn’t just about being being different and nobody understanding you; there’s an element of that, but it’s far more nuanced, and it’s not there for you identify with. Big FIsh isn’t a film you watch after crying all your eyeliner out, convinced that Jack Skellington understands you more than your parents do. Big Fish is about a son trying to reconcile his father’s tall tales – once a source of embarrassment and friction – with the man himself. Our fathers may not claim to have met giants and witches, but in the eyes of our childhood selves they’re always larger-than-life, legendary figures, and we might feel that reality doesn’t quite match up.

Poignant and perhaps more personal (although he didn’t write the script or the original book, his choice certainly suggests that something in it spoke to him) than any other film in his oeuvre by merit of not being composed entirely of emotionally illiterate broad brush strokes, Big Fish explores the father/son relationship with such insight and conviction that it will chime with far deeper resonance than than any tired declarations that life is “one big dark room.”

Big Fish Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter representing “the usual rubbish” as a witch

3. It’s not full of the usual people doing the usual cartoonish rubbish

Johnny Depp‘s lip-pursing standoffishness or sideways-glance incomprehension is nowhere to be found, Helena Bonham Carter has about 12 minutes of screen time (and doesn’t spend it doing drunk aunt tottering) and every other prior Tim Burton collaborator is strictly in the background. Instead, Big Fish hinges on a wide-eyed and beaming Ewan McGregor as the younger Edward Bloom, stalwart Albert Finney as the touching older Edward Bloom living out his last days with his family, future American Horror Story vamp Jessica Lange as his devoted wife Sandra Bloom, and Billy Crudup as his tense, uncomfortable son Willy Bloom, keeping his father at arm’s length.

Big Fish true love
Time stops as Edward Bloom sees his true love for the first time

4. It’s a return to his roots

Everyone thinks Tim Burton is returning to his roots now, desperately scrabbling to rebottle the lightning of suburban angst and unease that characterised Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Those may be the films that put him firmly on the map – as did 1989’s superb Batman – but they weren’t his true beginnings, nu-uh. He may have done two creepy goffick stop motion shorts – including the original Frankenweenie – but his full-length movie debut was Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 – a great, big, cartoonish romp following Mr Bean-like comedy persona Pee-Wee Herman.

Filled with fantasy flashbacks, Big Fish is led by the charm-bomb that is Ewan McGregor in which they go about such folksie errands as stopping a town from upsetting a giant, catching the titular uncatchable fish and joining a circus to learn one thing each month about the girl he has fallen in love with. It’s huge fun.

5. It’s subtle

Event Burton’s not-gothic movies aren’t exactly subtle – Ed Wood, Planet Of The Apes, Mars Attacks etc. The ringmaster of the great cirque du freak ensures that every movie he has a hand in is as loud as his own hairdo. Big Fish may have fantasy sequences depicting the tall tales of the dying Edward Bloom, but the reality is very much our world. Even the Danny Elfman score lacks its usual clown car bombast, being more delicately swelling, promising wonder and romance just out of sight, perhaps lurking in the corner of your eye.

Big Fish is available on Blu-ray priced £6.97 and on DVD priced £7.99 from Amazon.co.uk.