I'm usually on the receiving end of ire when I say this, but I think Big Fish achieves what Tim Burton attempted with Edward Scissorhands (a film I think falls apart during its second hour), but in the end was ultimately unable to accomplish. Now allow me to steel myself before you start throwing those rocks.
Estranged from his father for three years, William Bloom (Billy Crudup) returns to his Alabama hometown when he learns his father is dying. When William was younger, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) would regale his son with fantastical tales of his past exploits; William was initially fascinated by his father's tales, but began to see Edward as an egotistical charlatan as he grew older. When he arrives home, William sits down at his Edward's bedside, hoping to hear the true story of his father's life. But Edward once again begins spinning his patented yarns, pushing William further away.
Many have called Big Fish the least Burton-esque film in the Tim Burton canon (of course, many of those same people have said the same about Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, and Planet of the Apes), but I'm not sure it's a fitting description, at least from a certain point of view. The film has most of the trademark elements of the director's films, and you could argue that had Daniel Wallace's novella (which is greatly improved upon here by John August's screenplay) not existed, it would have been necessary for Burton to invent it. For me, the one quality the film displays that sets it apart from most of Burton's work is its maturity. Nothing about the film is truly silly, there's no adolescent fascination with the grotesque, nor is anything odd simply for the sake of being odd. It's almost as if Burton decided, for lack of a better phrase, to grow up.
As many have also said (and this part I happen to agree with), it's unlikely Burton could have made this film earlier in his career. Sure, he could have handled the fantastical elements with no problem, but the human side, which even he admits has never been his forte, would have suffered. Just as Kurosawa held off on Ran, Spielberg (who, not surprisingly, was offered Big Fish) sat on Schindler's List, or Clint Eastwood kept Unforgiven locked in a filing cabinet, Burton actually had to reach a certain point in his life before he could tackle such material. Burton lost both of his parents not long before he signed on to this film, and there's a bittersweet quality to Big Fish that's indicative of such loss. And given Burton's personality and his obvious affinity for the outsider, I don't think it would be out of the question to infer that he himself may have longed to connect with his parents in much the same way William attempts to reconcile with his father (although in Burton's case I think he would be more analogous to Edward).
Now that the boring psychoanalytical claptrap is out of the way, let's get to the important stuff. I don't know if I'd say this is Burton's best film (Ed Woo gets my vote), or even his most enjoyable (God help me, but Pee-wee's Big Adventure gets my vote in this category), but it's definitely high on the list. It's a deft blend of fantasy and reality, with both halves of the story working equally well. It unfolds, quite fittingly, much like a classic, well-told tale. It takes some time before the film really takes hold, but once it does, it's hard to resist. And while some may find it shamelessly manipulative, I think the final act is the single most effective, affecting sequence Burton has ever committed to film. If I were forced to fault the film for anything, it would be its episodic nature, but given the nature of the plot, I'd say that comes with the territory.
No one has ever accused Burton of being an actor's director, but he knows how to assemble a strong cast. Every member of the ensemble is fantastic, but the real standout (surprise, surprise) is Albert Finney. He isn't exactly known for playing likeable characters, but he has an uncanny knack for making them likeable nonetheless (if that makes any sense). Edward is the heart of this story, and although we see the younger version of the character (wonderfully played here by Ewan McGregor), it's Finney's take that's the more memorable, and arguably the most memorable component of the film itself. It's hard to imagine a performance that consists largely of a man lying on a bed and talking being this riveting and commanding, but damn if Finney (who has been screwed out of an Oscar so many times it's a crime) doesn't make it so.