If a little whimsy goes a long way, Big Fish has enough to circle the globe and head out into space. Based on Daniel Wallace's novel about a larger-than-life father (Albert Finney) and the mythic adventures he claims to have experienced, the film drowns in its magical-realist vision of the world.
Big Fish bounces back and forth between the deathbed stories Edward Bloom (Finney) tells to his estranged son Will (Billy Crudup) and the visualization of those tales featuring a young Edward (Ewan McGregor) traveling through the mystical world of his Alabama youth.
Filled with spectacularly visual set-pieces, director Tim Burton's film has everything from an amiable giant to North Korean lounge singers/Siamese twins and what looks to be the world's largest catfish. There's an eerily beautiful town called Spectre, Danny DeVito as a circus ringmaster who is also a werewolf, and an untalented poet (Steve Buscemi) who turns bank robber and then Wall Street tycoon.
After the aesthetic debacle of Planet of the Apes, it seems obvious that with Big Fish, Burton wants to return to the days when films like Edward Scissorhands and Pee-wee's Big Adventure were the rage of Hollywood. There's no doubt Burton has an immense talent for dream-like imagery and sympathetic takes on outsiders, but in Big Fish he has forgotten one of the key lessons of most artistic endeavors: Less is always more.
By piling on the cuteness, Burton suffocates us with it. It's really a shame, because in most respects, this is a handsomely made movie--Philippe Rousselot's photography is luminous, Dennis Gassner's production design clever and eye-filling, and the acting first-rate all down the line. (McGregor is especially charming as Bloom the Younger.) The story also has its high points, particularly the tense father-son relationship between Bloom Sr. and Jr., and an ending that is nothing if not emotionally fulfilling.
Yet there's a sense of "get on with it" about the film, as digression after digression pile up, leaving an overall sense of dilettantism at the expense of good storytelling. What's left is the impression that Big Fish worked much better as a novel.