Long considered Hollywood's King of Kook, Tim Burton's always possessed the happy knack of selling his idiosyncratic visions to the multiplex masses. Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas all put the 'ahh' in 'bizarre', the 'ooh' in 'skewed' and, much to the suits' hand-rubbing delight, the 'cent' in 'eccentric'.
Then came his ill-conceived remake of Planet Of The Apes. Never mind that it took $360 million at the global box office (financially speaking, Mars Attacks! is Burton's bomb), Apes was a movie bent out of shape. Gone were Burton's signature visuals; in was a twist of an altogether different kind. And no, we still don't understand it.
Big Fish, then, can be viewed as something of a comeback. The (tall) tale of charismatic raconteur Edward Bloom (Finney), it flits between present and past, fact and fantasy, to illuminate the vibrant life of a dying man. On one level it's a movie about love and reconciliation, Bloom and his 30-year-old son (Crudup) working at those splintered bridges as the clock counts down. On another, it's a loving ode to the art of storytelling for storytelling's sake. It's also a reflection on how one ordinary life can light up all those it rubs against. Forrest Gump without the schmaltz.
Bravely, most of the story is told through flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks), the camera exhibiting a welcome case of wanderlust as it deserts Bloom's sickbed to forage through his past. And what a past, the 18-year-old Ed (McGregor) hotfooting it from his small town in Alabama to discover a worldof witches and werewolves, circuses and giants. He also finds love, Ed wooing his girl (Alison Lohman) with a series of romantic flourishes so imaginative, so magical, he'd have Amélie wringing her elfin hands.
Burton, of course, revels in such sequences, delighting in bringing a misty forest to sinister life or unveiling a town of fairytale beauty. Naturally there are the usual problems, the director's flights of fancy at times proving so slight the movie threatens to float away, but then Burton's strengths have always been his weaknesses. God help us if he ever pours the fairydust down the plug and starts scouring the kitchen sink.
Of course, not everyone will take to his capricious conjuring, and some will be frustrated at the protracted length of each flashback into Ed's kaleidoscopic past ("So this is a tall tale?" asks one listener. "Well, it's not a short one," comes Ed's reply). But the film works because, crucially, Burton also nails the present-day scenes, extracting pinpoint performances from Finney and Crudup to ensure there's real emotion swirling amid the vagaries. Just gape at the final 15 minutes: they're as beautiful and moving - as you could ever hope for.