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      Big Fish Review

      Big Fish poster

      Big Fish

      Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

      Sometimes the stuff of pathos is better conveyed through lightness and fantasy than through the grim, hard facts. In the whimsical "Big Fish," that beguiling fantasist Tim Burton takes a painful subject - an estranged son's reconciliation during his father's terminal illness - and weaves around it a gossamer web of artifice and fancy, spinning a delightful set of American tall tales. With Albert Finney as prevaricating dad Ed Bloom, Billy Crudup as son Will, and Ewan McGregor as the younger Ed, we follow Bloom's spiritual autobiography through a dream life that has become Ed's own private truth.

      The story, based on Daniel Wallace's novel, deliberately mixes fact, fib and filigree. It's built around the outrageous yarns Ed has told over and over, but those yarns become more heart-stirring as they're told for the last time to Will and to Ed's wife Sandra (Jessica Lange). Ed, an adventurous salesman and unvarnished fabulist, is dying, and Will, previously sick of his dad's honeyed fabrications, now finds them forgivable, even joyous. Returning to find the real truth about his heritage, Will instead finds the truth he always missed in his father's lies.

      The "real" part of the story shows father and son coming together. But the meat of the story is the baloney old Ed tells and young Ed lives on screen, beginning with a first symbolic reminiscence of the "big fish" that ruled over the country pond of his youth. What emerges is a classic tale of a young man from the provinces striking out for the world over the hill, told in the language of American myth and malarkey.

      In great dreamlike tableaus, Burton and Finney give us a chain of doozies. We see young Ed, the "big fish" of little Ashton, Ala., his strange youth as a brainy sports star, his departure with a likable local giant for a circus run by Danny DeVito, his mesmerizingly sweet courtship of the young Sandra (Alison Lohman), his two bizarre encounters with the strange inhabitants of Spectre, Ala. (including Helena Bonham-Carter as both a great love and a witch), and his stints as bank robber Steve Buscemi's buddy and on Army duty in Asia, where he encounters two-headed, single-bodied Siamese twin entertainers Ping and Jing.

      It may sound a little Forrest Gump-ish, but "Big Fish" has its own sweet, smaller-scale tone. And like all Burton's work, this movie looks and sounds wonderful, thanks to collaborators such as cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, designer Dennis Gassner and Burton's constant composer, Danny Elfman. More than that, screenwriter John August (the witty "Go" and the unspeakable "Charlie's Angels") has crafted Wallace's string of poetic episodes into a story that has the ebb and flow of a tall-tale river, and Burton's wonderfully chosen cast leaps at the bait.

      Finney, as usual, dominates. And how could you find a better matchup for the old "Tom Jones" than the young McGregor? Or a better pair of blond and beautiful Sandras than Lange and Lohman? Or a more bewitching witch than Bonham-Carter? Finney's expansive joshing and geniality makes Ed's lies come alive as much as Burton's entrancing visualizations - and by the end of the film, as in Burton's wistful fantasy classic "Edward Scissorhands," seen as a magical world spread before our eyes, while coming to know man inside and out.

      A word of warning: "Big Fish" is so strange and so literary that audiences seeking conventional fare may get impatient with it. But it always takes effort to catch the big ones. This one is worth it.

      "Big Fish"

      Directed by Tim Burton; written by John August, based on the novel "Big Fish, a Story of Mythic Proportions" by Daniel Wallace; photographed by Philippe Rousselot; edited by Chris Lebenzon; production designed by Dennis Gassner; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks. A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation; opens Thursday, Dec. 25. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: PG-13 (a fight scene, some images of nudity and a suggestive reference).

      Ed Bloom (young) - Ewan McGregor

      Ed Bloom (senior) - Albert Finney

      Will Bloom - Billy Crudup

      Sandra Bloom (senior) - Jessica Lange

      Jenny - Helena Bonham Carter

      Sandra Bloom (young) - Alison Lohman

      Dr. Bennett (senior) - Robert Guillaume

      Norther Winslow - Steve Buscemi

      Amos Calloway - Danny DeVito

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