Films that try to evoke the Southern oral tradition usually just regurgitate regional stereotypes -- the Irish suffer similar treatment. Big Fish embraces its tall tales without trying to be definitively "Dixie," and feels more faithful to the South because of it. Edward's make-believe world proves utterly magical, although Big Fish occasionally flounders trying to get in and out of it.
The film's conflict comes from Edward's killjoy son William (Billy Crudup), a just-the-facts journalist who can't abide his father's whoppers. At William's wedding reception, Edward recounts for the umpteenth time how he landed a legendary monster catfish, and his son reacts with a humorless hissyfit, when a more typical response would be eye-rolling resignation.
Years later, father and son attempt to reconcile on Edward's deathbed. William gripes that he never knew anything "real" about his father, but Edward insists on recounting his impossible life story one last time. For most of the film, Ewan McGregor plays the young Edward, and it's an ingenious piece of casting. Both actors have similarly ruddy complexions, making them a good physical match, while McGregor's effortless charm -- no other male actor can so aptly be called "radiant" -- lives up to Finney's idealized self-description.
Young Edward's energy and pluck win him the friendship of a scary but misunderstood giant (Matthew McGrory, who's 7 feet 6 inches tall in real life and looks twice as big here). On a visit to the circus he falls in love at first sight with a blond beauty (Alison Lohman) and time literally stops, freezing performers and spilled popcorn in mid-motion. But he doesn't catch her name, so he takes a job at the circus: In a twist on Scheherezade, each month the ringmaster (Danny DeVito) tells Edward a new fact about his soul mate.
By being clever without resorting to irony, John August's adaptation of Daniel Wallace's novel keeps Big Fish from dissolving into hopeless hokum. Whenever young Edward's in a fix, he thinks of a clever escape, like fending off a wolf attack by throwing a stick so it plays "fetch." Big Fish also reveals a rich perspective on romance. Edward sees visions of a naked, mermaid-like beauty, while Lohman grows up to be Jessica Lange, whose warmth with Finney suggests that the older couple still have a tender, frisky relationship.
Big Fish presents one dream-like image after another, from cars caught up in trees and sharply tilting houses to a catfish the size of a killer whale. But while Burton's early films like Beetlejuice and Batman revealed striking visual effects in a static, airless manner, Big Fish's flow with ease from one to the next. You feel as though you're discovering its pleasures, not simply witnessing the labor of the art department.
The film finds a lovely resolution of the father-son antagonism, then undermines it with a superfluous second climax. Throughout the film's final act, Burton and August can't seem to decide whether Edward's stories are true accounts of wondrous events, or just the lies that shed light on reality. As William himself discovers, the more you accept the Big Fish stories at face value, the more magical they turn out to be.