Tim Burton is one of those directors who misses as often as he hits, but when he hits, he almost always knocks it out of the park. Fresh off the complete whiff that was his mediocre “Planet of the Apes” remake, Burton turned his attention to a collection of American folktales and produced “Big Fish,” a film many thought was in the running for a few Oscars last year. While it wound up with just one Academy Award nomination (for Danny Elfman’s score), don’t let that fool you into thinking the buzz was as fake as the giant trout that Edward Bloom pulls out of a river early in the movie. “Big Fish” is a fine film that cuts to the heart of every parent-child relationship. And giving us some insight into the human condition is what storytelling is all about.
Edward Bloom is the character at the center of the folk tales that run through “Big Fish.” Played by Ewan McGregor in his younger years and by Albert Finney in the present day narrative that pulls those stories together, Bloom is a larger-than-life raconteur whose greatly exaggerated fables from his youth entertain friends and family at every get-together. Everyone except his son, William, who became a journalist. William’s desire to cut through the bullshit and get to the truth, which fuels his career, also drives him to pull the curtain away from his father’s stories and discover what really lies beneath them. Edward resents this attitude, however, and the two become estranged, until William learns that his father is dying from cancer and returns home for one last attempt to make sense of the man’s life.
As William wrestles with this, we see Edward’s past come to life through the stories he continues to tell to his son’s wife. His true nature is literally so elusive that he ejected himself from his mother at birth and skidded down the hospital hallway, slipping through the grasp of doctors and nurses. We learn how he saved his hometown from a troublesome giant and became a local hero, the guy who everyone could count on to score the winning touchdown or sink the winning basket in the big game. We see him take on dangerous missions for the military and toil performing manual labor at a circus for months just to learn a few precious facts about the woman of his dreams, among other things. By the end, both we and William learn that there’s a nugget of truth in all of Edward’s tall tales.
Like William with his father, this DVD release does its best to get to the heart of “Big Fish.” The accompanying Tim Burton audio commentary is actually an interview with him conducted by writer Mark Salisbury. The two talk as they watch the film (sometimes it’s scene specific and sometimes it’s not) and get into everything from casting to special effects to shooting logistics. It’s an interesting track and definitely recommended if you’re a Burton fan. I wish that screenwriter John August and novelist Daniel Wallace had come in to add their thoughts or been given their own track, though.
Of course, this being a single disc release, the DVD producer was probably maxed out after accounting for the other bonus features, including seven featurettes and a Tim Burton quiz. Too bad this didn’t get two discs so that we could see the deleted scenes (one of which is shown in a featurette) and maybe even a full-blown documentary, but perhaps that needs to wait for the inevitable special edition.
The featurettes, broken into “The Character’s Journey” and “The Filmmakers’ Path” headings, all clock in under ten minutes each. They cover a variety of behind-the-scenes interviews, such as Danny DeVito talking about the Calloway Circus (he plays the ringleader), Tim Burton offering more insight into the making of the film, and August and Wallace discussing how the screenplay compares to the novel on which it was based. There’s also a “Fish Tales” feature that you can turn on; it allows you to access the featurettes whenever an icon representing the characters or the filmmakers appears on the screen, much like the “Follow the White Rabbit” feature on the Matrix DVD. The featurettes are well done, but they feel more like appetizers than a main course. Again, we’ll see if Sony wants to do a special edition somewhere down the road.
There’s also a two-minute featurette that’s your reward for correctly answering all the questions in the “The Finer Points: A Tim Burton Trivia Quiz.” It’s a nice bonus, and you can keep trying until you get each question correct, instead of having to take it over and over. You can also turn on a feature that allows you to take the quiz as you watch the featurettes by pressing “Enter” on your remote every time a certain icon appears on the screen. I think it’s easier to just go through the quiz and be done with it.
Overall, “Big Fish” is a great movie that deserves a more in-depth release someday. It’s still a great deal as a single disc release, however; the producer managed to pack a lot in there without sacrificing video quality, an impressive achievement when you consider how bad some films look when they have to share space with too many features (“The Cat’s Meow” comes to mind). If you enjoyed the film in the theater, this is a must-buy. If you haven’t seen it yet, try to get it through Netflix or a similar service so that you have enough time to appreciate everything shoe-horned into this release. Those two- or three-day rentals don’t cut it in the DVD age.