I'm an absolute sucker for films that hone in on shaky relationships between fathers and sons. For me, it's pure, thematic kryptonite -- consistently filling my eyes with stoic man-tears, regardless of how good or bad the movie may be. Thankfully, Tim Burton's 'Big Fish' never resorts to cheap tactics and overt sentimentality to manipulate film fans cursed with my particular weakness. Instead, the film is a bold, original vision of compassion that paints a stunning story on to a heart-wrenching canvas -- a modern fairytale sure to hit home for anyone who knows their father, but feels like they've never really known him.
Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) always told the best stories -- when his son William was a little boy, he would listen for hours as his dad weaved tall tales of fantastical events that he claimed occurred during his many trips as a traveling salesman. As a child, William (Billy Crudup) was fascinated by these legends. As a young man however, he has grown bitter that his father was always on the road -- appearing and disappearing amid a whirlwind of lies that never allowed any genuine relationship to develop. Revealed through a series of surrealistic recreations of his father's travels as a young adult (played by Ewan McGregor), William recalls his dad's delusions as the elder man slips away from this world.
There are two movies chugging along in 'Big Fish' -- one focusing on the bland real world dealings of William, and the other showcasing Edward's imagined past brought to literal life. Burton strikes a perfect balance between the two, and develops the main characters within a carefully orchestrated framework of wonderful supporting actors. Finney, McGregor, Crudup, and Jessica Lange are all up to the task and turn in sadly sweet portrayals of their characters. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is a treat all its own. Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Danny DeVito, Steve Buscemi, and many others add a rich texture to the world of 'Big Fish' that retains all of the paper-mache whimsy of Burton's universe. They take potentially one-note characters and expertly tuck each of them into the reality the rest of us dwell in from day to day. No small feat.
'Big Fish' is kind of like a fantasy version of 'Godfather II' where Don Corleone's life as a young man is interweaved with his son's at the same age. But while William and Edward are definitively different from each other, the main failing of their relationship is a lack of communication. The tall-tale worlds Edward constructs are well intentioned, but they never allow him to truly connect to his son. Throughout William's efforts to get his Don Quixotian father to come to terms with reality, his desperation to rekindle a relationship with his father is palpable.
No matter how many times I see 'Big Fish,' I remain absolutely smitten with its balance of a son's torment and a father's charm. There are scenes in this movie that never cease to move me -- the bathtub reflections of a husband and wife, the quiet kindness between McGregor and the freaks of his world, and the closing revelations of Edward's funeral, to name just a few. Even things as simple as the nuggets of truth hidden in the lyrical narration add to the entire experience.
To be fair, 'Big Fish' definitely isn't for everyone, and you should use Burton's other films as a measuring stick to determine your own likely enjoyment of this one. I find it to be more personable and accessible than many of his other fairytales, but others may have problems with the pulpiness of the lush fantasy world Edward creates in his stories, and the purposefully overwritten and overplayed flashback sequences. Sappy? You be the judge -- 'Big Fish' has always seemed wonderfully genuine to me.
Presented in 1080p on a dual-layer disc using the MPEG-2 codec, 'Big Fish' is a purposefully inconsistent visual experience and I'll critique it as such. As I mentioned above, there are two movies playing concurrently within this one film -- one is a vibrant, overblown world of imagination, while the other is a more grimy real world, overcast with shadow and regret. Both couldn't be more different, and yet each is equally beautiful in this transfer. The jarring transition between the two heightens their vast differences and enhances the film in the process.
The scenes involving Edward's travels pop with color, vibrance, and well-stabilized contrast. Hazy whites are nearly illuminated by the sun (take one look at the villagers who hide Buscemi's poet and the bright suits and dresses they wear), while greens and blues drip onto the screen like off of a painter's brush (any nature shot in Edward's memories). Facial details and skintones are warm and luminous (Edward's accidental separation from his unit during the Korean War), and organic shadows separate the image between the light and dark of the world (look no further than any scene at DeVito's circus). The image is hyper-stylized and often loses depth as a result, but the effect crafts an illusion of an exaggerated tall tale that elevates the movie itself precisely because it's filmed this way.
Meanwhile, scenes set in the real world are harsh, undersaturated, and revel in a nice range of black levels, shadow detail, and mild grain that adds a slight depth to the proceedings. The image is fuller and rings true, creating the feeling that a person's outlook on life completely affects their perception of their environment. Contrast is still strong (look at the heart wrenching bathtub scene for a prime example), while fine texture detail brings an earthiness to the film that helps distance itself from the fantasy elements.
In both instances, the technical achievements of the transfer shine in their own way, and add to the overall quality of the film itself.
Having said that, everything's not perfect -- grain levels occasionally differ from shot-to-shot within the same scene, and there are scant speckles and scratches on the otherwise well-preserved source print. Some will be distracted by the intentional softness in the flashbacks, and there is a slight increase in the disjointedness between practical, natural, and CG elements in the film's high-def presentation. Finally, there are also three rare moments of nearly imperceptible noise in the bright sky.
Most (if not all) of the problems listed above are insignificant to the overall presentation, and 'Big Fish' easily trumps Burton's other films that have been released on Blu-ray or HD DVD. It even eclipses most high definition releases of films that were filmed more recently, making this Blu-ray release a vibrantly strong transfer that's very close to reference quality.
'Big Fish' on Blu-ray continues to impress with its two included audio tracks, a very strong PCM 5.1 and slightly thinner Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. On both tracks, every channel brims with ambiance, while detail, movement and accuracy are dead on. Dialogue and narration are also rich, deep, and warm. Bass tones resonate, treble ranges are crisp and believable, every effect and word is stable, and the soundscape is swirling with well prioritized layers.
While the audio on the standard-def DVD suffered from limited range, I was pleasantly surprised to find a sound design package on this Blu-ray disc that seems worthy of Burton's gushing compliments on his commentary track.
For an astounding auditory experience, listen as Edward approaches the giant's cave for the first time. Rippling water comes from every direction, rustling underbrush fills the rear channels, a slight howl spins across the front speakers, and a booming voice vibrates the room with the subwoofer. For more, skip to the moment when Edward meets Sandra at the circus -- a lovely use of sound and silence. My home theater was filled with clattering crowd noise, animal cries came from each channel, and the soundfield suddenly imploded when Edward saw Sandra. As she exited, the sound design opened up and flooded the mix with a convincing clutter and confusion.Danny Elfman's pitch-perfect score is also worth mentioning as it becomes a character all its own. The instrumentation is evenly spread across the soundfield and isn't simply relegated to the front channels. Closing my eyes, I was excited to immerse myself in the complete illusion of a surrounding orchestra.
To be honest, there is precious little in this sound package to complain about, other than wishing it had 6.1 or 7.1 support. My only other issues had to do with specific choices that I personally found distracting in some character voices and situational effects, but these moments had nothing to do with the quality of the sound package or the overall design. To be certain, this is a disc audiophiles can use to impress their friends with equal parts subtlety, boisterousness, and wealthy design.
The one area where this Blu-ray edition of 'Big Fish' falters in its supplemental package. While the standard DVD offered character featurettes and documentaries covering everything from the screenplay to the filming, this disc only comes with Tim Burton's excellent director's commentary. While I appreciate the stunning quality of the video and audio, I find myself wondering if both could've been preserved while stiill adding in more of the features available elsewhere. I personally think a second disc would've been a completely acceptable solution, especially considering Burton's large (and rabid) fan base.
On the bright side, Burton's commentary track is a must-listen for fans of the unique filmmaker. He never focuses on minor technical details or dry explanations of things we've heard a million times before from other filmmakers. Instead, he keeps a keen handle on broader discussions concerning the elaborate artistry of his practical effects, visual style, and sound design. He also keeps things interesting by breaking down characterization, plot development, and the incarnations of the story at various stages. Burton is extraordinarily adept at examining his work and career with candor and skill, and as a result this was one of the most interesting commentaries I've listened to in quite a while.
There are two kinds of fantasy film fans: those who consider Tim Burton to be a mad genius whose gorgeous visions manifest an awkwardness of the human psyche, and those who don't understand what the fuss is all about. I'm personally a huge fan of Burton's 'Big Fish' -- I believe it to be the director's Tim Burton's most personal, accomplished, and well developed film.
But whether or not Tim Burton is your thing, this Blu-ray presentation is sure to please your senses. While the film itself is older than some other reference-level releases, the picture quality and audio packages on this disc are top-shelf. The only lacking component of this Blu-ray release is the supplements package, which is missing most of the many bonuses included in prior standard-def editions. Still, this one is highly recommended for fans of the film, followers of Burton, and lovers of dramatic masterpieces that mix fantastical imagination within the realism of the natural world.