Ah, a Tim Burton movie. Even when he's bad, it's hard not to admire the man who made Beetlejuice, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Batman and, yes, Planet of the Apes. His work, in an era of generic market-tested movies, is always the work of an individual. Nobody else could -- or does -- make the movies of Tim Burton.
Big Fish is not Burton's most successful film. (For me, that would be a toss-up between Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands.) But it is a sentimental baby boomer fantasy that could have been made by nobody else, and, in the end, the parts of the film that do work outweigh the failures. And, strangely, it's even better on the small screen.
Big Fish takes Burton into rare territory -- family life -- and makes him deal with things -- emotions -- that he normally doesn't worry about in his movies. The film tells the story of a young journalist (Billy Crudup) trying to connect with his father Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) before he dies. Bloom has always been a storyteller, embellishing elaborate stories for his audience, and passing them off as true. Nobody much minds this, partly because the stories might be true, and partly because they're good stories.
We see many of these tales in flashback. Ewan McGregor, looking at times precisely like a young Albert Finney, plays Bloom in these sequences. We discover how his car once wound up in a tree after a rainstorm, and learn about his months working for a werewolf at a circus. We see Bloom as a young man witnessing his own death by looking in the eye of a witch. Burton's visual imagination is not as free as it would be in a more fantastical movie. Everything in Big Fish needs to have some measure of reality. But reality, Burton-style, is still more interesting-looking than most movies.
Some directors would have trouble unifying a film that flip-flops between flashback and contemporary scenes. But Burton, who worked for Disney when the studio was creating masses of episodic television, handles the short form very well. Perhaps the closest comparison would be with his short film Frankenweenie, which dates from that era. Even though Big Fish is more grown up, it's no less lighthearted. And even with a weepy plotline, Burton shows a measure of originality. Like any good film artist, he knows that it's all in the telling.