Revisiting Tim Burton’s ‘Big Fish’ as an Adult

by Olly Smith | October 24, 2020

“The truth is, I didn’t see anything of myself in my father. And I don’t think he saw anything of himself in me. We were like strangers who knew each other very well.

– Will Bloom, Big Fish

As an adventurous child with a love of fairy tales, I grew up loving a lot of Tim Burton’s work. He’s a filmmaker responsible for some of the best fantasy films of our generation, getting popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s for directing films such as Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), as well as writing and producing the comically dark The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). I’ve seen these films multiple times, in both adolescence and adulthood, and watching imaginative characters get into strange, macabre situations never tires me. But there’s one film he’s made that had a different, more personal effect on me.

I was eight years old when I saw Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003) for the first time. Going into it, I yearned for the same exciting fairy tale adventures that I already knew his work to be, and if you’re familiar with Burton’s style then there’s a lot here that corresponds to that. The film featured creatures such as a giant, a werewolf, and a mermaid. But these elements only take up half of the film, with the other half concerning the relationship between Edward (Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney playing the older counterpart), a father with a penchant for telling highly embellished stories about his own life, and Will (Billy Crudup), his disenchanted son who feels he’s never been able to connect with him through these stories. 

Usually in a film involving characters telling a story, the real-world aspect is often used as a framing device to set the scene and provide some dramatic irony, but in Big Fish it’s almost the opposite. Edward’s tall tales serve to expand on the real world story that develops alongside it. As we see more of his absurd life unfold before our own eyes, we grow more sympathetic to Will’s frustration as he desperately tries to reconnect with his father. It’s not the real-world story that expands the framed story, but rather the latter giving us a stronger connection to the former.

When I was watching this film as a little boy, this side of the story didn’t interest me as much. I was much more interested in knowing more about the old witch or the circus as told in Edward’s stories. Whenever it cut back to Will, I failed to see the bigger picture. For a young child, a relationship as complicated as the one between Edward and Will is a bit of an alien concept, I just wanted to get back to the stories. But it wasn’t until I would watch Big Fish again as an adult that I realised: I was Will.

Big Fish body image
Jessica Lange, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, and Albert Finney. Big Fish (2003)

When I was growing up, I was close with my father. We both enjoyed watching sports and going cycling, and I made it a big part of my identity that I had to enjoy these things because my dad did. I started attending live football matches with him, and would make sure to go on bike rides from time-to-time. When I was ten, my parents separated and suddenly my dad wasn’t around as much as I was used to. Although my sister and I still saw him on weekends, it was a huge life adjustment that triggered years of irreversible identity issues as it damaged my own relationship with him.

Because of my dad’s absence, I began to realise my real interests and hobbies were not in sports at all. I was merely going along with it because I thought I saw a lot of myself in him. It was a surrogate identity I had adopted just to please him, and my real interests had been neglected while he was living with us. I looked to other hobbies. I already liked video games, but I leaned into them a lot more in my teenage years because I no longer felt pressured to be constantly trying to please him with sports.

This is why I cried at Big Fish when I watched it again as an adult, especially when Will describes his own father’s absence when he was a child: 

“When I was growing up, he was gone more than he was here. And I started thinking— maybe he has a second life somewhere else. With another family, another house— he leaves us, he goes to them. Or maybe there is no second family. Maybe he never wanted a family. But whatever it is, maybe he likes that second life better. And the reason he tells all those stories is because he can’t stand this boring place.

Edward is as much a ghost to Will’s adolescence as my own was to mine. There’s an early scene where we see a young Will excitedly enjoying another one of Edward’s stories, which is almost immediately contrasted by adult Will’s crisis in feeling like he never got to know his father. It’s a change that mirrors the way I have connected with my own dad over my life. As I got older, the ties that bound us together got looser and looser.

The thing about icebergs is you only see 10 percent. The other 90 percent is below the water where you can’t see it. And that’s what it is with you, Dad. I’m only seeing this little bit that sticks above the water.

By the end of the film, Edward is on his deathbed in the hospital and Will comforts him by narrating a fairy tale version of how his life ends. Although he initially does this to humour him in his final moments, Will gradually embraces his role as a storyteller and becomes fully immersed in telling the exciting story. By the end of it, he finally understands his father’s love for telling stories.

In his review of the film, critic Kent L. Brintnall describes this resolution as Will letting go of his anger:

By unselfishly releasing the anger he has held about his father’s stories, Will gains the understanding that all we are is our stories and that his father’s stories gave him a reality and substance and a dimension that was as real, genuine, and deep as the day-to-day experiences that Will sought out. Will comes to understand, then, that his father – and the rest of us – are our stories and that the deeper reality of our lives may, in fact, not be our truest self.

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Ewan McGregor as Edward in Big Fish.

This quote speaks volumes to me. It tells me that our truest selves are the people we are on the inside, not the outside. Edward is a storyteller, that’s who he is. Therefore, his stories are an extension of himself. The point of Big Fish is that, in the end, it doesn’t matter what was true and what was fabricated. It’s the stories that drove Will and Edward apart, but they’re also what brought them back together.

This gives me hope that I’ll one day be able to patch things up with my own father, just as Will does with his. The blinding truth of this ending is that we already have the tools to reconcile with each other right in front of us, and I want to believe that one day I’ll be able to return to a world where I feel like I can understand my dad again, feel like I know him and even tell him that I love him.

Olly Smith is a film and video games journalist based in Manchester, UK. You may know him for his extremely good tweets or over-researched features on retro video games, but tempt him with a Jaffa Cake and he’ll open up to you pretty quickly. Follow him on Twitter @OllyWrites.

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