A buoyant and evocative, hard-to-believe but easy-to-embrace collection of truth-stretching tales from a modern-day Munchausen, "Big Fish" couldn't be more perfectly matched to the appealingly off-kilter sensibilities of director Tim Burton.
Populated by misunderstood giants, bizarre circus folk, bewildered werewolves, idyllic denizens of hamlets lost in time, and beautiful, genuinely-Siamese twin songstresses, it's a film saturated with the colorful embellishments of one Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), a former traveling salesman whose fanciful yarns have always frustrated his paradoxally practical son Will (Billy Crudup).
Will, who grew up to be a fact-obsessed journalist, is now trying to make some real sense of these stories because his father is slowly dying. Of course that's not what Edward would have you believe. Reminding his son of his supposed childhood encounter with a witch -- a reclusive old woman with a crystal ball where her right eye should be -- he says, "It's not my time to go. I saw it in the eye!"
"So how will it happen?" Will asks, begrudgingly humoring his bed-ridden pop.
"Surprise ending," Edward grins mischievously through his ruddy wrinkles and growly voice. "Wouldn't want to ruin it."
As Will makes one last attempt to truly connect with his father, he leads the audience into the past, where we encounter Edward's whole life the way Edward tells it, beginning with his shot-out-of-a-cannon birth that supposedly sent the slippery baby fabulist skidding down hospital hallways.
Burton's penchant for whimsy and fantasy are put to good use creating a captivating atmosphere of skewed reality inside the world of Edward's dubious anecdotes -- where his younger self is played with warm, charming aw-shucksiness by Ewan McGregor, who has a gift for dancing on the edge of absurdity without seeming self-aware or silly (see "Moulin Rouge," "Down With Love").
McGregor's read on the character doesn't fully jive with Finney's gruffer older portrayal, and he doesn't even begin to look Edward's supposed 18 years in the early going, when he becomes the favorite son of his small Alabama town (football star, firefighter, winner of the science fair) before setting out to seek adventure in the larger world. But consistency does come in other forms, as in Edward's least fantastic but most enchanting story of how he won the heart of Will's mother.
Romantic in both mythical and personal proportions, this amorous subplot is magical and visceral from the moment Edward discovers that time really does stand still for love at first sight. McGregor literally pushes away airborne kernels of popcorn frozen in his path as he walks toward this sunshiny girl of his dreams, played by the remarkable Allison Lohman ("Matchstick Men," "White Oleander"). In an inspired casting match, Jessica Lange plays the same role in the present, still bright-eyed and captivating as she snuggles up to Finney, especially in a moment when they tumble into a bathtub together, fully clothed and giggling like school kids.
The film's present day has a comfortable, vividly homey warmth that is contrasted by the disconnect between Edward and his son, both good souls but uncomfortably on opposite ends of the pragmatic spectrum. "You spend years trying to corrupt this kid, feeding him nonsense, and somehow he still turns out fine," Finney's Edward jokes, much to Will's chagrin.
But the at-odds father-son chemistry -- the unconditional love that peeks through the disparity -- is played by Finney and Crudup with palpable care and hesitant affection that helps slowly bring the men together emotionally and philosophically in a way that infuses the final act with an emerging, alternative sense of wonder as Will begins to decipher a few revealing facts of his father's far-fetched stories.
Adapted by John August ("Go") from a novel by Daniel Wallace, "Big Fish" succeeds at enveloping you in Edward's slightly preposterous world of memorable magical realism -- even through the eyes of his disbelieving son -- and embodies Tim Burton best talent: Like a child with a wonderful imagination, and like Edward Bloom, he can extrapolate the extraordinary from the ordinary, and through the conviction of his vision, make us see it too.