The trouble with seeing as many movies as I do a year is that sometimes, something familiar about a movie touches off an alarm of "been there, seen that." Tim Burton's "Big Fish" does have a slightly cliched, slightly rocky opening, but it's a movie that keeps clicking into place throughout until it's become something wonderful and even rather brilliant.
The picture starts off with William Bloom (Billy Crudup) becoming entirely embarassed with his father, Edward (Albert Finney)'s tall tales. After walking out on a night where things should have been focused on him, William moves to Paris and doesn't speak with his father for three years. Suddenly, William gets a call from his mother (Jessica Lange) that his father is dying, so William should return to speak with his father before his passing.
So, when son sits down with father, he asks him to tell the truth - tell him the real story about his life, in order for William to be able to tell his children about his dad. So begins a series of stories about walking with giants, working in a circus, siamese twins and, most importantly, the lengths to which Edward (played by Ewan McGregor in flashbacks) went to win the heart of his mother (Alison Lohman in flashbacks).
Although most have noted that this is the least offbeat or, dare I say, weird picture from director Tim Burton, the picture simply manages to integrate the fantasy elements in a completely different way and with a different overall tone than the director's prior films. Here, Burton works in these elements in a more grounded fashion and visualizes them - especially in the case of an "ideal" town seemingly hidden in the middle of the woods - in a way that captures the imagination in a very pure and compelling way.
The performances are quite terrific across the. McGregor, able to do a Southern accent surprisingly well, does a sort of "aw, shucks" character with sincerity and charm. Albert Finney is marvelous as the older Edward; he presents his tales with timing and, along with the rest of the picture, a lack of sentimentality. Lange and Lohman both deliver heartfelt and touching performances, with Lohman continuing her low-key, yet entirely successful quest to suddenly become a household name. Billy Crudup ("Almost Famous"), required to do pretty much the most thankless role in the picture, offers a performance that builds nicely as his father continues his tales. Crudup and Finney are quite good together, as are Finney and Lange. The real surprise is Marion Cotillard as Crudup's pregant wife; she crafts a poignant, memorable performance in only a handful of scenes. Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny Devito and others offer fine supporting efforts.
The film does start off a little rocky and Burton does start to take a while to get to the point, but in an era where cynical films are often the popular ones, Burton's "Big Fish" skillfully earns its emotional moments without sappiness (aided by Danny Elfman's expert, heartfelt score), leading up to an ending where - at least with the audience that I watched the film with - there wasn't a dry eye in the house. This isn't entirely what people may expect from Tim Burton, but it's easily his best, most inspired work in years.
VIDEO: "Big Fish" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality looks noticably different than I remember when viewing the film theatrically. While it may just have been a bad print, I remember the film being somewhat washed-out looking. Here, contrast appears stronger and the picture as a whole looks more vivid and warm.
Sharpness and detail looked first-rate in the image, as the picture consistently appeared crisp and well-defined. Edge enhancement remained at a minimum throughout the film, and I only noticed a couple of minor instances of compression artifacts. The print looked perfect, with no marks, scratches or debris to be found.
Colors appeared well-saturated and bright, especially in the circus sequences. Black level looked strong and flesh-tones appeared natural and accurate. Overall, this was a first-rate presentation.
SOUND: "Big Fish" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack is moderately aggressive, as while several stretches are more dialogue-driven, there are other moments where surrounds are used noticably to offer very effective ambience or, occasionally, a more noticable discrete sound effect. Occasional hefty bass is present, but mostly, this is simply a very pleasant-sounding picture, with a crisp, clean-sounding score, clear dialogue and well-recorded effects.
EXTRAS: The main supplement is a commentary from director Tim Burton. While I've basically enjoyed the director's prior DVD commentaries, they've always been frustrating - while Burton would drop interesting tidbits, they'd only arrive between rather long gaps of complete silence. This time around, someone came up with the excellent idea of having an interviewer (whose name I just couldn't seem to catch, despite listening to it twice) ask the director questions about his work in "Big Fish" and his overall career. The result is the finest commentary the director has ever done, as he enthusiastically offers great insights into casting (especially important here), character development and production. In terms of production, Burton chats about shooting on location, dealing with the studio, working on a short schedule and the importance of doing things "for real" as much as possible, instead of using CGI.
Aside from the commentary, "Fish Tales" is another feature that can be turned on during playback of the film. With this feature, viewers can click on the occasional icon that'll pop up on the screen. When clicked, viewers will be taken to another featurette on the making of the film, then brought back to the film at the point they left off.
Moving on, you'll find several featurettes - some about the production, others about the characters/actors. The production featurettes run several minutes a piece and focus on Burton's storytelling, the importance of storytelling and creating the look of the fantasy scenes of the movie, Stan Winston's creature creations and finally, a piece with novelist Daniel Wallace and screenwriter John August. The character pieces focus on Finney/McGregor's character, Devito's character and the father/son relationship between Finney and Crudup's characters.
There's also a trivia quiz and trailers for: "Big Fish", "13 Going On 30", "Spider-Man 2", "50 First Dates", "Hellboy", "The Company", "You Got Served", "Mona Lisa Smile", "Something's Gotta Give", "Triplets of Belleville", "Secret Window" and the "Big Fish" soundtrack.
Final Thoughts: I didn't go into the plot of "Big Fish" in terribly great detail, simply because this excellent picture needs to be experienced as fresh as possible. I'm surprised, in fact, that the film didn't get more Oscar notice. Columbia/Tristar's DVD edition provides excellent audio/video quality, along with a handful of very good supplemental features. Highly recommended.