After a remarkable run stretching from 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure to 1994's Ed Wood, Tim Burton hit a prolonged rough patch. Though deeply flawed, the clever 1996 satire Mars Attacks! and 1999's visually sumptuous Sleepy Hollow each had much to recommend them, which can't be said of 2001's hopelessly muddled Planet Of The Apes. Taken as a whole, Burton's second decade of filmmaking has looked like a letdown. Fortunately, he rebounds in a big way with Big Fish, a Daniel Wallace adaptation and visual feast that recaptures the fairy-tale simplicity and wrenching emotional power of Edward Scissorhands. Told largely in flashbacks, Big Fish stars Albert Finney as a larger-than-life Southern patriarch who never lets the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Billy Crudup co-stars as his bitter reporter son, who resents having grown up in the shadow of Finney's tall tales, but returns to his ailing father's home to try to get to know him before he dies. Ewan McGregor plays a younger incarnation of Finney who (like McGregor's protagonist in Down With Love) seems to float through a charmed life, carried aloft by invisible winged cherubs. As Finney tells it, his life story is a great American fable in which he, in keeping with Big Fish's enormous generosity of spirit, helps a series of misfits, kooks, and freaks, including a ringmaster (Danny DeVito) with a dark secret, a laconic poet (Steve Buscemi), and a misunderstood giant. Whenever Big Fish leaves the gorgeously wrought mythological past, with its echoes of vintage Disney and the best work of Burton and Steven Spielberg, and returns to the inevitably cold and dreary present, the shock is as bracing as waking up from a glorious dream. But when Crudup's present and Finney's past finally merge, the result is as powerful and heartbreaking as anything in Burton's career. Like Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Big Fish largely takes place in a kaleidoscopic, fully formed, utterly benevolent universe that seems to have originated in its protagonist's vivid imagination–which in this case isn't that far from the truth. With such a world-class fantasist in the director's chair, the question of which side of the fantasy/fact divide Big Fish will fall on is never in doubt. But Burton and company make an unbeatable case for the life-affirming power of make-believe.
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