‘Big Fish’ is Tim Burton’s Best Movie for the Spring

Tim Burton's Big Fish poster featuring a large tree.
©Sony Pictures

Spring brings with it buds on trees and eggs in nests, an overall defrost of the earth that signals the end of our collective hibernation. I, for one, am always a little sorry to see warmer weather because my final form is a children’s storybook illustration of a vole wearing a sweater vest that drinks tea out of a thimble on a snowy day. But if I’m honest, even I have to admit that there’s a lot to love this time of year, both in life and in art. There are certain stories that truly encapsulate the unique sensibilities of this time, when everything gets a fresh start and becomes more colorful. One of those stories was quite ironically brought to life by someone who is inextricably associated with spring’s diametric opposite. But however odd it may seem, if you’ve never seen it or haven’t revisited it in a while, Tim Burton’s Big Fish is a beautiful movie to watch right now.

Based on the novel of the same name, Big Fish is about the relationship between parents and children and the power of stories. Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) and his father Edward (Albert Finney) have a falling out and years-long rift because Will can no longer stomach the fanciful way that Edward tells stories about his life, believing them to be lies that stand in the way of him truly getting to know his father. We see why he might be justified in questioning the accuracy of these tales as we’re shown the adventures of young Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor) through a Gothic Americana filter. He encounters giants, werewolves, secret towns, and circuses, so there’s no lack of the Burtonesque aesthetic and ambiance, which is highlighted further by longtime Burton film composer Danny Elfman. But all of that stands out even more for its sharp contrast to the painfully honest and human moments about aging and the things we tell ourselves to try and make sense of our lives.

When one thinks of Tim Burton, the first visuals that come to mind are likely desaturated grays or sharp blacks and whites, and that palette is plentiful in his work. Still, he’s also an artist who has always used color, sometimes even very bold, to stunning effect. The pastels of the Florida town in Edward Scissorhands, the jarring red blood in Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd, and the extra-concentrated overload of candy color in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are just as iconically Burton as all the gloominess. That eye for color is used to wondrous effect in Big Fish, with springlike brightness being used in the moments of Edwards’ story when he describes some of the most transformative moments of his life. The sunny skies and green grass of the town of Spectre teaches Edward that comfort is a great thing to have, but never venturing outside of it keeps your life very small. The circus he volunteers to work at and its red big top is the setting of Edward first laying eyes on his one true love, Sandra Templeton. 

Ewan McGregor as Edward standing in a field of daffodils in Big Fish.
©Sony Pictures

The expression of that love for her makes for one of the most gorgeous shots in all of Tim Burton’s work and one of my favorite shots…ever. In his quest to win the hand of the woman he wants to marry, Edward publicly declares his love for her any chance he gets in any way he can think of. (Big Fish is a movie with a surreal storytelling style, so that’s endearing, even though in real life, that would be a big, creepy red flag.) He knows that her favorite flowers are daffodils, and he doesn’t take the gamble that a bouquet will be enough. This is the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with, after all. Sandra hears her name being called from outside her window, and she opens it to look down on Edward, standing out against a giant sea of bright yellow daffodils as the music swells. It’s gorgeous to look at, and leaves such a lasting imprint that I think of this scene every time I see those trumpets popping out of the ground. It’s the kind of moment that makes you feel like spring is the perfect time to fall in love.

There’s also a lovely metaphorical dethawing of the relationship between Edward and Will. (Even their name, Bloom, is synonymous with spring.) This is a father and a son that just fundamentally do not understand one another, and in the closing days of Edward’s life, they have to figure out if they ever will. Partly at the urging of their wives, and maybe because they know that this is the last chance they’ll ever have, they try to find a way to reach each other. Will is so convinced that if Edward would just stop being so quixotic, then his true self would finally be revealed, and we watch him discover that the way Edward talks about his life is the truth of who he is as a person.

One of the motifs of Big Fish is the idea that the way someone chooses to tell the story of their own life is just as important as the truth of what transpired within it. If their account is straightforward, that tells you something about who they are. If it’s wildly off-base, that reveals something else entirely. And if, as is Edward’s choice, one decides to add some quirky embellishments about the things they did and the people they met along the way, well then, that might tell a son a lot about what kind of a man his father is. Edward Bloom’s hyperbole wasn’t an act of narcissism or some self-aggrandizing exercise. He saw everyone that was important to him through rose-colored glasses, and who wouldn’t be flattered to know that whenever your name passed a person’s lips that you were made out to be just a little bit grander than you actually were?

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Will finally comes to see the beauty in his father’s way of doing things just in time. The finale of Big Fish is an even match of heartbreak and joy, and it makes me not just cry but leaves me a wreck every single time I watch it. Nobody should have to end their life attached to machines in a cold, gray hospital, yet that’s exactly the position Edward finds himself in, his son by his side. It’s an especially bleak end for a man who has injected so much vitality into life. Those are not the last moments anyone would want to be remembered by, and certainly not Edward Bloom. As he lies dying in the hospital, Edward begs his son to narrate the story of a happier death, and finally, Will understands why his father tells elaborate, taller-than-average tales. As he begins to speak, a sudden burst of glorious brightness shines through the window, illuminating the scene.

Edward’s life comes to a close on a sunny day. He needs one last zany story full of impossible feats to send him on his way, so father and son escape from the hospital and drive down to the town’s river, and the view that awaits them there is a wonderful one. All the people that Edward met during the course of his life — all the characters in his stories — are at the riverbank to meet him with smiles on their faces and dressed in their colorful best. Far from mourning his death, this is a true celebration of his life. As Will carries Edward down to the water, their path is lined with fallen brown leaves and trees with mostly empty branches, but they’re not the natural omen of death and endings that come with autumn. There are glimpses of the green buds and tiny new leaves of spring bursting with life out of the trees and bushes. The sun sparkles on the river as the Blooms wade into it, and it’s here that the story of Edward’s next great adventure begins — he transforms into a big fish and swims away as the crowd looks on. With this image in his mind, we cut back to the hospital as Edward passes on. If only everyone could have such poignant final moments with our loved ones.

So there’s no need to wait until October to watch Tim Burton, not when a movie like Big Fish exists to display just as many of his strengths as the spookier entries to his oeuvre. It’s equal parts charming and heartbreaking — a love letter to the idea that even though we can’t always control how our life turns out, we can try to be remembered in a way that makes us happy even when we’re gone. It’s one of my favorite Burton movies, and even though Big Fish isn’t something I watch every year, every time I come across a tuft of happy yellow daffodils, I have a hard time remembering why that is.


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