In this whopper of a tall tail, fish become human and humans become fish … and a man learns to love his father in a way he’s never been able to before.
Edward Bloom loves telling stories. And he’s good at it, too. Acquaintances hang on his every word. Friends laugh uproariously. Family members smile knowingly. But Ed’s son, William (now 30 years old), isn’t amused. He hasn’t been for years. He’s sick of fibs and exaggerations. He’s tired of hearing lies. He wants to know the truth about his dad’s life. So when he gets word that Ed is dying, he flies home with his wife to tend to his family’s affairs—and try to get to the bottom of things.
What follows is an fantastical visual romp through the imagination of an old man remembering his life exactly how he would like to remember it. A magical town. A colorful circus. A gentle giant. And beautiful conjoined twins! Is any of it real? Does it really matter if it isn’t?
Commitment to marriage gets huge props in this fish pond. Once Ed knows he’s in love (hey, you’d know it too if time stood still the first time you laid eyes on your future spouse), he gives his heart fully and completely to his one and only. He works for three years just to learn her name—remember Jacob’s deal with Laban in Genesis 29?—then woos her and weds her. And, contrary to normal Hollywood conventions, their romance doesn’t end at the altar. Ed remains a one-woman man the rest of his days, resisting temptations to stray at every turn. “I’m in love with my wife,” he tells one interested woman. “From the day I met her to the day I die, she’s the only one.”
Also scoring big points is Big Fish‘s tender treatment of the strained relationship between a man and his dad. “There are many similarities between my father and Edward Bloom,” says novelist Daniel Wallace, whose book, Big Fish, A Story of Mythic Proportions, served as the inspiration point for the movie. “Like Edward, my father was an extremely charismatic man who sometimes used his charisma to keep people at a distance. It would appear as though he was being intimate with you when he was really just being charming.” Many details related to their differences are never resolved as they rarely are in real life, but there’s an invisible undertow of love and respect here that draws the two together before it’s too late. They begin the movie alienated and silent (“The truth is,” William says, “I didn’t see anything of myself in my father, and I don’t think he saw anything of himself in me, either”). But unspoken forgiveness and empathy are the trophies they share before Ed passes on.
Elsewhere, Ed shows kindness to an outcast giant, teaching him that appearances matter little when one possesses a generous heart. He shows restraint when he’s abused by a hateful peer, and (within the context of the tall tales) he keeps his word even when it causes him pain.
A church congregation sings “Amazing Grace.” Looking into the eye of a “witch” reveals to Ed and some of his friends the manner in which they will die. Ed recalls that what he learned in Sunday School was that the more difficult one’s undertaking, the more rewarding its end. And he makes a comment about not ever talking about religion because “you never know who you’ll offend.”
Twice, a fish appears to Ed as a naked woman (the camera focuses on her bare back and buttocks, and a brief side view is seen). A carnival barker, who is apparently some form of werewolf, is seen naked from the rear after he changes back into a man. A college boy thumbs through an issue of Playboy while perched on a toilet (only the cover is seen). Ed jokes about his mother “banging” the milkman. Conjoined twins croon, “I need twice the man/Because, baby, I’ve got twice the love to give.”
Images in the witch’s eye include a man dying after falling off a ladder, and another collapsing while on the toilet. The werewolf attacks Ed, as does a whirling carnival ride. He’s blown down by the giant’s voice, shot by a clown, chased by a swarm of bees and punched out by a jealous foe. (The beating he takes provides a positive lesson, though, since Ed refuses to fight back, having promised he won’t.)
While serving in the military, Ed parachutes into enemy territory and fights with several soldiers, knocking them all out with his fists and the butt of his gun. While doing time as a traveling salesman, he accidentally becomes part of a bank robbery, wielding a gun and watching helplessly as his “partner” shoots a few holes in the ceiling.
The giant rolls a car over onto its side. Hospital orderlies crash into a supply cart. And Ed grapples with a huge fish.
Three s-words (two are used by children; one is spelled out). Beyond that, only a half-dozen milder profanities appear.
Minor characters smoke. (I saw more cigarettes outside the theater than onscreen.) People toast with Champagne.
Comedically it works, but it’s best not to contemplate the realities of a newborn baby shooting out of his mother and sliding down the hospital corridor, as happens in one of Ed’s fables. When first confronting the giant, Ed casually informs him that he has been sent as a human sacrifice by the townsfolk. And while working with the circus, he’s nearly hit by fresh elephant dung.
“Stories are our dreams, really,” says star Ewan McGregor. “That’s why we tell stores. They’re kind of what makes us interesting and connects us with one another from generation to generation. Without them all we’d be left with is politics and supermarkets. And what kind of a world would that be?”
Edward Bloom is Forrest Gump without his crutches. He unwittingly dominates hometown sporting events, haplessly travels around the world, gleefully parachutes over Korea during the war and loses his heart to the prettiest girl in three counties. But Big Fish isn’t about overcoming obstacles in the way Gump was. It’s about coming to terms with a life that sometimes feels dull. It’s about family bonds. Losses. Secrets that shouldn’t be so secret. And the great value real has.
Fanciful, funny and sweet on marriage and family, this Fish only has a few sharp bones to note, even after it’s been filleted and dissected: brief (rear) nudity, some inappropriate jokes, three-too-many s-words and scattered violence.