Big Fish (2003)

 from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Big Fish is a terrific fantasy movie from Tim Burton. Because of the kind of movie it is, you can conclude two things about it:

1) It will not get general critical respect nor be nominated for any significant Oscars. Where are the Oscars for The Princess Bride and Blade Runner and There's Something About Mary and The Life of Brian and The Big Lebowski?  Simple formula: no dying gay people + no suicides + no sad violin music + no children killed or molested  =  no Oscar. (The Academy had no choice with Lord of the Rings. It was the five hundred pound gorilla, too damned big and too damned good to ignore.)

2) A decade from now, people will have forgotten all the films that will be nominated (except Return of the King), and will still be watching Tim Burton's odd and sentimental fantasy, along with some other unnominated films like A Mighty Wind, Kill Bill, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

I would like to be proved wrong about the first, because Big Fish is a much better movie than some of the overwrought misery films (21 Grams), cookie-cutter formula pictures (Cold Mountain), and otherwise overrated films that are being touted for nominations. Unfortunately, I will probably be right. So it always goes for original thinkers and fantasy films.

Two examples:


1987 was a great year for cinema, producing many memorable films, several of which are now considered classics, or cult classics. Unfortunately, only one of them (The Last Emperor) was nominated for an Oscar. (Nominees are highlighted in the table below). The academy chose a bunch of safe twaddle. Fatal Attraction as Best Picture? It is now clear as day that The Princess Bride and Full Metal Jacket were the greatest movies among the eligible films that year. The Princess Bride is now among the all-time Top 100 at IMDb, and is extensively quoted by movie buffs. Can you quote any lines from Moonstruck?

Princess Bride, The (1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987) 8.1
Wings of Desire (1987) 7.9
Au revoir les enfants (1987). 7.9
Untouchables, The (1987) 7.8
Babette's Feast (1987) 7.7
Last Emperor, The (1987). 7.7
Evil Dead II (1987) 7.6
Raising Arizona (1987) 7.6
Matewan (1987) 7.6
Hope and Glory (1987) 7.5
House of Games (1987) 7.5
Lethal Weapon (1987) 7.5
Radio Days (1987) 7.4
Pelle the Conqueror (1987) 7.4
Empire of the Sun (1987) 7.4
Withnail and I (1987) 7.4
Bagdad Cafe (1987) 7.3
Predator (1987) 7.3
Wall Street (1987) 7.2
Maurice (1987) 7.2
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) 7.2
Cry Freedom (1987) 7.1
Moonstruck (1987) 7.1
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) 7.1
Broadcast News (1987) 7.0
RoboCop (1987) 7.0
Near Dark (1987) 7.0
Angel Heart (1987) 7.0
No Way Out (1987) 7.0
Hidden, The (1987) 6.9
Bad Taste (1987) 6.9
Roxanne (1987) 6.8
Fatal Attraction (1987) 6.7



1985, on the other hand, was not a great year. I think you could fairly argue that they should not have given the Best Picture award at all that year, but if they had to give one, Out of Africa was about as bad a choice as has ever been made for that honor. (See our article on the worst Oscar winners.)

There were two fantasy classics released that year: Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which is now rated #171 of all time at IMDb, and Back to the Future, rated #145.

Neither received a nomination.

Ran (1985) 8.4
Back to the Future (1985) 8.0
Brazil (1985) 8.0
My Life as a Dog (1985) 7.6
Tampopo (1985) 7.6
Witness (1985) 7.6
Color Purple, The (1985) 7.5
Purple Rose of Cairo, The (1985) 7.5
Breakfast Club, The (1985) 7.5
Room with a View, A (1985) 7.4
After Hours (1985) 7.3
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) 7.2
Better Off Dead... (1985) 7.1
Runaway Train (1985) 7.0
Quiet Earth, The (1985) 7.0
Prizzi's Honor (1985) 7.0
Goonies, The (1985) 7.0
Silverado (1985) 7.0
Re-Animator (1985) 6.9
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) 6.9
Out of Africa (1985) 6.8


Based on the history of The Princess Bride and Brazil, don't expect Big Fish to win any awards, either. Tim Burton, like Terry Gilliam, will have to wait for posterity to give him the respect he is due as a filmmaker, which is considerable.



I wrote the lines above before the film was ever released in general distribution. Now, many months later, I am adding the chart for 2003.

I told ya so.

Big Fish was not nominated, but is ahead of two of the nominees at IMDb, and tied with a third. Its IMDb score (8.0) is right up there with Brazil (8.0) and The Princess Bride (8.2). In most years, that 8.0 might even have had a chance to be the highest of the year, but 2003 was not an ordinary year, since it featured the concluding chapter of Lord of the Rings. Return of the King is rated a stratospheric 8.9 at IMDb, and also won the Academy Award for Best Picture. That Oscar was really for the cumulative accomplishments of all three parts of the trilogy, but there's really no reason to dispute the wisdom of that decision. The complete saga was certainly one of the most impressive achievements in the history of cinema, and the Academy could hardly fail to acknowledge that.


Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The (2003). 8.9
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) 8.3
Finding Nemo (2003) 8.3
Mystic River (2003) 8.2
Lost in Translation (2003) 8.0
Big Fish (2003) 8.0
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) 8.0
X2 (2003) 7.9
Love Actually (2003) 7.8
Last Samurai, The (2003) 7.8
Seabiscuit (2003) 7.5
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) 7.5


Big Fish did an excellent $66 million at the box, starting slowly in direct competition against The Return of the King, but hanging in steadily, actually doing better in its fourth weekend than in its third.

To tell you the truth, Big Fish is probably not as memorable a movie as The Princess Bride or Brazil, simply because it doesn't have a clear focus on a target audience. It may be too sentimental for the young guy audience, too grown up for the kids' market, and too silly for the hard-core SciFi/Fantasy fans. In essence, it's a story of a father and son reconciliation told in a fanciful way. Fanciful, to say the least.

Albert Finney and Billy Crudup play a father and son with issues. Finney is a compulsive story-teller, a guy who has always answered any serious question about himself with a long and exaggerated fish-story. Crudup was an adoring son until he was about ten, at which point he realized that every word his father had ever told him was a lie. That didn't stop the old man, however, who continued telling his tales and even embellishing them further. Now the father is dying and the son wants to come to terms with who his father really is underneath the stories. Before the movie ends, the two of them must reconcile the real world and the fish stories, and that occurs in some unexpected and imaginative ways.

I guess you could argue that this film is my own dad's story, in a way. Just like the Billy Crudup character, I worshipped my tale-tellin' dad until I was old enough to realize that everything he said was bullshit. Then I kind of avoided him for about a decade. I felt kind of betrayed, because I was some kind of Blade Runner child, running around with a head full of false memory implants, completely unaware of the location of the line between myth and reality.

I wouldn't say he was a liar, because a liar expects people to believe him, and my dad would have been insulted if anyone thought any aspect of his stories was believable. That would imply a lack of imagination and humor on his part. In addition, "liar" is an ugly word which implies that somebody deceives others for his own gain. My dad had no ulterior motives, nothing beyond laughter, and his stories never hurt anyone. Still, I believed them when I was five, just like kids believe in Santa Claus, and then there came a point in my life when I realized that I believed in a lot of falsehoods.

As an adult, I realize that beautiful and entertaining falsehoods are often far better than reality, but deep inside me, I still have some problems with his stories. Of course, I know that he didn't really teach Ted Williams how to hit, and he didn't write the last two pages of The Great Gatsby so Scott Fitzgerald could attend a party without missing his deadline. I figured that out when I was about eight. But there are other elements of his history (read: MY history) that I'm still not clear about, half a century later. Are his stories partially true? Are they literary embellishments based on some core of fact, or is every single detail suspect? Was his last name really Sparrow for some years before he and my grandfather returned to the original Polish version? I have told this to people as if it were fact, and when I left for college I still believed it completely, but every passing year has created additional doubt. I'm now at the point where I'd just rather not discuss it. 

My dad and I were uneasy together from the time I got "sophisticated" until I had kids of my own, at which point he again took over his official duties as the family's designated storyteller with another generation of kids. Another decade later, I had a second family, and there was my dad again, spinnin' his tall tales for my youngest son. If every man is meant for one role in life, he was meant to be a grandfather. One of the most vivid memories of my life is the raucous laughter coming from the bedroom when Grandpa Danny was supposed to be putting the kids to sleep. In a world where tears often outweigh laughter, how can you stay mad at someone who brings people so many laughs at nobody's expense?

As for my problems, how did they all get reconciled? Do I now know the truth about my dad?

More to the supposed point of this essay, what about the son in the movie? Did he get beyond the yarns and find the real man?

The answer for me is very similar to the answer in the movie. The real man is the tall tales. What more do you need to know? I don't know much, if anything, about what happened in the first thirty years of my dad's life, but I have now spent as much time as he ever did preserving his yarns for posterity. I concluded that there is no need to look for the real story behind the whoppers. The real story is that he was the guy who created the tall tales. They were a separate reality that seemed real to me and my sons for many years. He was funny, and loveable, and a gentle soul. Let's face it, he WAS Danny "Suits" Sparrow. Nothing else really matters, does it?

The film pretty much comes to the same conclusion. It is a sweet, imaginative, silly movie. Unlike Tim Burton's earlier work, it is almost complete devoid of darkness and cynicism.

I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Film Threat 4.5/5.

  • British consensus: two and a half stars. Daily Mail 2/10,  Daily Telegraph 4/10, Independent 4/10, The Guardian 4/10, The Times 4/10, The Sun 8/10, The Express 4/10, The Mirror 8/10, BBC 10/10

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.0/10 (#218 of all time), Yahoo voters score it an A-.
  • Box Office Mojo. It did better than expected. $66 million gross in the USA. The production budget was $70 million, the distribution cost was $25 million. It grossed $44 million overseas.


Bevin Kaye, a stuntwoman, does some underwater nudity. There is also a brief shot of the top of her buns as she stands in the shallows.

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B. It didn't win any big awards, but like The Princess Bride or The Big Lebowski, it will endure after the Oscar nominees have been forgotten (unless they happen to have been directed by a certain Peter Jackson).

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