20 Years Later, Big Fish Remains One of Burton’s Best (And Strangest) Films

“He was a big fish, even then.”

Big Fish 2003
Big Fish 2003

When you think of Peter Jackson, you think of The Lord of the Rings, not The Lovely Bones. When you think of Ti West, you think of X, not In a Valley of Violence. Now and then, a genre director makes a film that seemingly shouldn’t belong in their oeuvre, only for that director to go back to their original style after said outcast film. If we’re lucky, though, we get a movie that, while different, manages to be just as great as the director’s other titles, and contains traces of what made us initially love the filmmaker.

Based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish was originally meant to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who later dropped from the project in favor of focusing on 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. Now, Big Fish and Spielberg together make sense. He is, after all, a director known for his wholesomeness and family-friendliness, someone who can turn a movie about a dinosaur theme park into a quiet exploration of fatherhood.

However, Tim Burton becoming the final choice wasn’t completely out of left field — the director wasn’t just known for Batman or Sleepy Hollow, he also had hits like Edward Scissorhands, another grown-up fairy tale boasting a significant dose of sentimentality. Most importantly, when the movie was released, Burton proved just how incredible of a choice he was for this movie, so much so that he was even nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Direction.

Big Fish is a fantasy-drama film that tells the tale of a man named Edward (Ewan McGregor) whose father is dying. As his dad is known for telling fantastical and even unbelievable stories about his past, Edward starts investigating these tall tales in an attempt to separate fact from fiction and find out who his dad truly is. Even now, Big Fish remains Burton’s most intimate film, and both the loving warmth and visual wonder displayed on screen could only have been achieved by a master filmmaker like him.

Filled with heart and magic realism, Big Fish enchants greatly, with every new plot development more offbeat and charming than the previous one. Burton perfectly balances the grounded warmth and great whimsy of John August’s screenplay, and this successful interaction between director and writer would lead August to become one of Burton’s favorite collaborators. The two would go on to work together in the films Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Dark Shadows, and Frankenweenie.

August isn’t the only noteworthy Burton collaborator from Big Fish  — Danny DeVito, Deep Roy, and Helena Bonham Carter also star in the film, with all three known to frequent the gothic-loving director’s other titles. DeVito had already been in two Burton films prior and would go on to be in two more after.

However, for Roy and Carter, this was only their second film with the filmmaker, both having worked with him in 2001’s Planet of the Apes. Roy would then be in two more Burton films, and Carter, especially, would star in five more, becoming the actress who collaborated the most with the director.

Another interesting outcome from Big Fish is that twenty years after its release, the town of Spectre (a fictional town in the movie) remains and can be visited. Abandoned after production, the set has become a tourist attraction and can be found in Wetumpka, Alabama, at Jackson Lake Island. Jenny’s house, especially, has been a fan-favorite landmark and was even featured in HGTV’s Hometown Takeover.

Burton’s filmography hasn’t been the most consistent lately. Ever since 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, his live-action movies have received nothing but mixed-to-negative reviews, 2014’s Big Eyes being the singular exclusion. Big Fish, however, reminds us of a time when the director was a visionary unlike any other, when he was a resounding voice in the industry revered for his imagination and creativity. Inspiring, vivid, and captivating, Big Fish rightfully earns its high praise from adult fantasy lovers — and fans of Burton’s traditionally gothic oeuvre.

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