While Director Tim Burton has traditionally worked with exploring the outsiders and the freaks, Edward Scissorhands, Batman and his freakish villainous nemesis, Joker and Penguin or the undead of “Beetlejuice,” “Big Fish” may arguably be his most normal film yet. It’s not a story of outsiders, but that of a son trying to understand his father.
Yet at the same time it captures all of Tim Burton’s fundamental themes, the conflict between the normal world and that of the freakishly magical world Tim Burton has celebrated in his movies from “Beetlejuice” to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to “Sleepy Hollow” and “The Corpse Bride”. In Tim Burton’s world, the fantastically imaginary lives next door to our humdrum ordinary world, much like the doors to each realm in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” or the veil between worlds in “The Corpse Bride” or the door to the netherworld that can appear anywhere in “Beetlejuice.” In “Big Fish” that door is not so much a question of where, but of who.
Will Bloom and his father Edward Bloom appear to be two different people. Edward Bloom is constantly telling his family, friends and anyone who will listen fantastic stories of his adventures. Will rejects these as lies and fictions that prevent him from really knowing his father. During the structure of the movie we are presented with a narrative set primarily in the conventional ordinary world we know, the ordinary normal world of William Bloom who has come home to visit his dying father, with stories and flashbacks that take us into another world, the world of Edward Bloom’s stories
To William Bloom these worlds are incompatible and one of them must be false. Having chosen the real world, he is still struggling to unravel the “truth” behind his father’s fictions. Where Edward Bloom was a born storyteller, Will has become a reporter, a professional whose calling it is to report on the real world and to strictly distinguish fact from fiction. Edward Bloom is a salesman who believed that a man can shape the world as he chooses. To Will, the world is a fixed property that cannot depart from its natural laws.
The collision between father and son takes place both in the real world and the world of myth, which “Big Fish” picturesquely explores, yet it is a world without Tim Burton’s usual art, the only example of which appears on the poster here. Edward Bloom’s world is not the usual freakish fantasy world which Tim Burton revels in, ala “Beetlejuice”, “The Corpse Bride” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” or “Batman Returns.” It is strikingly conventional next to all of these. The fantastic things in it, like giants or Siamese Twins or giant catfish, are present in the real world. While a werewolf and a witch are not, these elements are handled in a matter of fact way, rather than emphasizing their uniqueness, as Burton usually does.The resulting world is not so much impossible, as improbable and that is the life Edward Bloom lives, a most improbable life.
The conflict between the ordinary and the extraordinary has been rendered vividly by Tim Burton before in “Edward Scissorhands” that sees Edward colliding with a freakishly normal world of pastel colors where he does not belong, or in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” where Jack attempts to kidnap Santa Claus or “The Corpse Bride” where the boisterous underworld and the ordinary cynical greedy world collide. Sometimes this conflict is resolved by a coexistence of both worlds, as in “Beetlejuice” which ends with the ghostly and human families forming one single family for which Lydia (Wynona Rider) serves as the bridge. Elsewhere as in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” it leads to an understanding and acceptance of differences, followed by a segregation of the normal and the extraordinary.
“Big Fish” chooses to bridge the ordinary and extraordinary by having the death of Edward Bloom become the gateway that opens his improbable world to his son and gifts him with his father’s legacy of storytelling. While in the original novel, “Big Fish: A Journey of Mythic Proportions”, Edward Bloom dies in four different ways, in “Big Fish” the movie, he dies in a perfectly ordinary way which he demands that his son make extraordinary. In that moment Will Bloom is forced to continue his father’s legacy on his deathbed, by finding and investing his death with meaning through a story that allows him to grasp the whole mythical cycle of his father’s life.
Only when William Bloom has completed his father’s life by recognizing him as “The Big Fish who couldn’t be caught”, the mythic aspect of human life that can’t be pinned down and defined and sets him free, can his father die peacefully. Only then at his funeral is William also able to see how much of his father’s improbable life was true. Edward Bloom had lived in a world where it was the stories you told, reflecting your hopes, wishes and dreams that mattered, while his son had tried to live as a reporter in a real world where only facts mattered.
The voyage of the Big Fish was the voyage of the lurking dreams and stories Edward Bloom had grown up with that first showed him that underneath the surface of things, amazing and wonderful things can exist and live. Water is the realm of life, the realm where things are constantly changing. As Edward Bloom moved toward death, he found himself drying out.By restoring him to the water, William Bloom had found the flow that was the source of life and the source of legend and set himself and his father free.