Ewan McGregor gets caught up in Magical Realism at the circus. (courtesy photo)

Tim Burton recounts Daniel Wallace's tall tales in 'Big Fish'

Daniel Wallace, who grew up in Birmingham, set his first novel in Ashland, a hamlet in eastern Alabama whose population now numbers little more than 2,000. Published in 1998, Big Fish is the story of Edward Bloom, a raconteur who cannot help embellishing and fabricating the experiences he recounts. By the time he finishes relating an incident, the tale is as tall as Karl, a giant who mysteriously materializes in Ashland.

So it is probably appropriate that when Tim Burton - whose Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and Batman are not exactly paragons of cinéma vérité - adapted Big Fish into film, Ashland was changed to Ashton, a place not found on any map. But then you probably will not find a two-headed singer entertaining troops, as Edward claims he did after parachuting into a North Korean military base. According to his son, William,

Big Fish
Dir. Tim Burton; writ. John August, based on a novel by Daniel Wallace; feat. Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helen Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito (PG-13)
Edward is "just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined - just as funny and just as fake." The same could be said of Big Fish, except that it is not quite as funny. A Dixie specimen of Magical Realism, the film expects a viewer to swallow it all, hook, line, and stinker. It is hard to believe that Edward's Alabama contains only one black man, a physician, but a visit to an S&L in West Texas that has been looted by real estate speculators is entirely credible.

Like Barbarian Invasions, Big Fish is framed by the deathbed reconciliation of a father and his son. Like Secondhand Lions, it celebrates a rambunctious old coot whose memories are more inventive than accurate. And like Cold Mountain, it adapts The Odyssey to an American journey beset with dangers and temptations, homeward to a patient, loving woman.

A journalist in Paris, William, exasperated with his father's constitutional aversion to honesty, has not spoken to Edward for three years. "He's never told me a single true thing," William complains. But when he learns that Edward is dying of cancer, William returns to Ashton, hoping to learn the truths about his father's life before it comes to an end. Big Fish cuts between the fantastic stories Edward tells about himself and the prosaic present in which, at least at first, Edward seems like a sick old salesman with a vivid imagination.

Big Fish is a tall tale - as tall as the giant Karl, who mysteriously appears in Ashton. (courtesy photo)

A star athlete, scientific genius, accomplished entrepreneur, and giant tamer, young Edward is a big fish in little Ashton. Venturing out into the wider world, he stops in a town called Spectre that is too perfect to be true, or to hold an 18-year-old wanderer not yet ready to settle down. The impresario of a circus where Edward later works (DeVito) tells him: "You're a big fish in a small pond, but this here's the ocean." Edward is a school of one, and by the time he swims through all that the seas have in store for him, including a witch who sees the future, a poet who robs banks, and a true love who awaits him in Ashton, he might seem as massive as Moby-Dick. He becomes a war hero, a philanthropist, and an enigma to his only son. Seeing the sources of his father's whoppers, William, at least, comes to admire the art and cherish the heart.

Burton uses his flamboyant visual style in the service of giving substance to Edward's concoctions. He has recruited several Britons to feign Alabama accents as principals in the cast. They include Ewan McGregor as young Edward Bloom, Albert Finney as his older alter ego, and Helena Bonham Carter as Jenny, a resident of Spectre. Along with Billy Crudup as William, Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange as Edward's beloved Sandy at different ages, and Steve Buscemi as the robber-poet Norther Winslow, they manage to pull it all off - though the "it" is the viewer's leg. Big Fish is piscine piffle, a feel-good film that nevertheless makes a skeptic feel like sludge. "There are some fish that cannot be caught," warns Edward. Burton comes back with a charming old shoe. •

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