Director Tim Burton brings his delightfully surreal touch to the sentimental drama of a young man determined to learn about his father and to find the truth behind the old man's intricate "tall tale" stories.
Will Bloom grew up hearing his father Edward tell fantastical stories of his adventures as a youth: rescuing his home town from an angry giant, a stint in a traveling circus, an interlude in a village so perfect it could be the fabled Shangri-La, a parachuting espionage agent in the war and, perhaps most improbable, his quest to catch a giant fish, bigger, much bigger than any ever seen in their quiet Southern streams. But now Edward is on his deathbed and Will, who became a journalist devoted to the facts, wants the truth.
Albert Finney plays the older Edward and says the son's discovery that "we never see our fathers in ourselves" rings true to him.
"Your conditioning, I suppose, comes through now and again," he said. "I have a son and sometimes you hear yourself saying something you never thought you'd say to your son that your father said to you and it's kind of an easy line to say in the circumstances, perhaps. You think 'I'm just repeating something my father said,' but I think we are mysteries in a way. We are mysteries to our fathers and to our sons because it's a very complex relationship."
That lifelong love is Sandra, whom Bloom spots in the crowd at the circus and falls in love with at first sight. Alison Lohman plays the young Sandra as the story unfolds in flashback; Jessica Lange plays the mature woman in her later years. Lange says what seem to be Edward's tall tales are, to her, an important part of family life.
"I think in families there is always the mythology and it's interesting because when he says 'my father's stories lived on after him' that line at the end of this film resonates more than any other in the film, because it's true," she said. "I see my kids and my father died when they were quite young, yet they still tell stories that I've told them about his stories. That is how a person lives on: in the stories."
The tall tales, or family histories, unfold with Ewen McGregor co-starring as the younger Edward. "Certainly with Albert and I they didn't offer to one of us until they offered it to both of us. They had to find the match," he said.
Beyond the stunning physical similarities - photos of Finney from 40 years ago look remarkably like the younger actor today - McGregor says they share an appreciation for how Big Fish approaches the connection between fathers and sons.
"It is not a hugely explored relationship in movies," he said. "It can connect to all of us because whatever our relationship is or has been with our parents, we can all relate to that. It's about the repair of a severed relationship. I think it's hugely moving and it's a beautifully moving and it's a simple tale."
Director Tim Burton also feels a personal link to Big Fish, which he describes as "an emotional detective story."
"Really, it's about that unique relationship parents and children have, no matter what age they are," he said. "The parents are one way and the child goes almost the opposite: it's a fairly common dynamic and losing my own father a year before [making the film], you just bring up all this stuff that's hard to put into words. I felt the film, for me, was a way to explore that."
Billy Crudup plays the son, Will; and the Big Fish cast also includes Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Helena Bonham Carter and, making her American film debut, French actress Marion Cotillard. The script is by John August and the Big Fish musical score is by frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.