2003: Big Fish
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by John August
I’m convinced there are two Tim Burtons. There’s the one, now sadly prevalent, who churns out soulless reinterpretations in his signature style with all the personality of a t-shirt rack at Hot Topic, the one birthed in the wake of Batman some twenty-five years ago and made triumphant by the billion-dollar success of Alice in Wonderland. And then there’s the other Burton, the one more like Edward Scissorhands up in his castle happily churning out ice sculptures for nobody but himself, who managed to fight the good fight against Dark Burton for a decade or so but who now seems gone for good. And Big Fish , coming almost as an apology for the woeful Planet of the Apes remake, was that Burton’s last stand.
In fact, my three favorite Burton films — Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Big Fish — all came after he indulged himself in some sprawling piece of Hollywood bombast (Batman, Batman Returns and Apes). It was as if he felt self-conscious about directing those big-budget blockbusters and, again like Edward, wanted to go hide somewhere familiar and do his own quirky thing. They’re undoubtedly his most personal films, the ones where he seems most fully invested, and it’s no accident all three are in some way about the creative process and those who engage in it. Scissorhands is the artist running smack into the commercialization of art and retreating (perhaps a reaction to the massive success of Batman), Ed Wood acknowledges that even bad art is still art (and those who create it still artists), and Big Fish touches on the idea of artist as liar, with the audience as willing accomplices because sometimes an entertaining lie is better than a boring truth.
There’s also more than a little Gilliam-esque nod to the power of storytelling, especially in the finale, as Will finally bonds with his father not by having his father finally tell him the truth, but by finishing his father’s tall tale himself. And then finding the grain of truth in his father’s stories in the end. It’s a similar idea to the one touched on in Life of Pi — if one version of a story is more interesting, why not believe that version? — only not in the service of a spiritual argument, beyond the idea of stories letting the author live forever. Which, to someone who both wants to write and fears his mortality, is a pretty powerful message.
And considering that the creative part of me exists in no small part due to the many hours spent with my dad going to the movies, the final bonding of father and son through storytelling left me an incoherent mess the first time I saw Big Fish. Of course, my relationship with my father is nowhere near as fractious as the one in the film, not the slightest bit in need of any kind of deathbed breakthrough. But the resonance is definitely there, the appreciation of being the son in the image of the father. I do doubt my dad is going to turn into a fish though.
Big Fish only grossed $122 million, while Burton’s follow-up, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its own set of daddy issues, nearly quadrupled that. And with that, quirky Burton gave way to QUIRKY BURTON, and we’ve been getting buried under Johnny Depp in overdone make-up ever since. Burton’s become Ed Wood without the passion, Edward without the soul, the liar who keeps telling the same whopper over and over again, just changing the details and hoping we don’t notice. The only problem is he still has plenty of willing accomplices, so he’s got no reason to change.