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The Power of Imagination: On the 20th Anniversary of Big Fish

“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

One afternoon, over ten years ago now, a colleague made a remark that betrayed what was likely a personal regret: we should make the most of our parents while they're still alive. 

Upon revisiting “Big Fish,” Tim Burton's 2003 fantasy drama now reaching its 20th anniversary, it occurs to me that this sentiment relates in some way to Will Bloom, played by Billy Crudup. The film's plot centers on the difficult relationship between Will and his father, Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney). The tension between father and son is underpinned by the tall tales Edward tells that mythologize his life. To Will, they're a smokescreen his father's hiding behind, that has stopped him from ever knowing who his father really is. 

The experience of watching “Big Fish” has changed as I have. What struck me on viewings during its theatrical run and a year later was the emphasis on fantastical storytelling over the human story. The plot details were generally lost to time, except for a fragmented series of images. After my third viewing, two decades later, I can now relate to Will in a way I couldn't before. My self-awareness has broadened through life experiences, and I can reflect on the shared history with my father, whose mortality I'm forced to confront. 

For some, but not all, Will is a version of ourselves, only in a dramatized and exaggerated context. Experiencing "Big Fish" when you're fresh out of adolescence to when you're an adult and entering that period where one is prone to encountering a mid-life crisis is different. To a young person whose future reaches out ahead of them, the film speaks to the hopes and dreams of what their life could be. To an adult, it's heavy on nostalgia, and the realization of the difficult relationship sons often have with their fathers, as well as the ups, downs, and twists in any life lived.

The relationships in the film are fully formed, and they belong to their own unique and dreamlike world. Yet, the story’s relatability for some filmgoers will resonate in a way that might feel personal to their own experiences. It's in constant metamorphosis, offering a space for us to emotionally project ourselves upon, becoming a mirror that reflects our image back to us. 

Following Burton's disappointing remake “Planet of the Apes,” whose only saving grace was Tim Roth's performance, “Big Fish” felt like redemption in 2003. Also, in the coming years, he would go on to direct some lackluster films, like “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Alice in Wonderland," and “Dark Shadows,” which left him susceptible to increasing criticism. Unlike “Big Fish,” which saw him broaden his aesthetic, visually brighter with the dark fantasy tones not being as oppressive or noticeable, the films that followed felt increasingly commercialized and hindered by underwhelming storytelling. The impression began to form that Burton was a filmmaker who had given us his best, and "Big Fish" was maybe his one last hoorah.  

On the film's 20th anniversary, it struck me that it would have been a fitting swan song for the director. It conveyed much of what we came to love about Tim Burton and his ability to intertwine imagination and humanity. His characters made us laugh and evoked pathos, and “Big Fish” celebrates both. Filled with a naïve and indulgent affection for storytelling, and an expression of human emotion, it still feels like the perfect, or at least a fitting full stop to the filmmaker’s career. Burton layered a fairytale-esque quality into many of his films. Even in the darker or tragic tones of his work, he was still able to convey romanticism and innocence in films like “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood,” and those themes reflect in the mirror of “Big Fish.”

It deserves to be remembered, enjoyed, and appreciated by new generations, and yet the film has seemingly fallen between the cracks--lost to time. Aside from Will and Edward's story, the relationship between Edward and his wife, Sandra (Jessica Lange), is a strong emotional arc. As we watch Edward's life fade, Burton and screenwriter John August pull on our heartstrings. They craft a touching portrait of love as these two soulmates are forced to finally part in death. Blessed with sensitivity about love, life, family, death, and our love of stories, “Big Fish” is a timeless film that will continue to resonate with future generations. 

In its ability to transcend time, it has had a helping hand from human or societal flaws. Look at how the giant and the witch are introduced as ominous figures, only to reveal that neither Edward nor we should fear them–a scene that challenges our adversarial and xenophobic reality. “Big Fish” appeals to our better angels, advocating tolerance and openness towards those different from us. 

“Big Fish” possesses an almost wide-eyed innocent quality and Edward is almost an echo of all of us. He represents our inner child, that part of us that never fully grows up, even as we enter adulthood and are saddled with hefty responsibilities. The pleasure of rewatching “Big Fish” is to revel in this pure escapist fantasy, where stories and imagination are not suffocated by reality. If François Truffaut said he preferred the reflection of life to life itself, Edward Bloom managed to find a coping mechanism for his monotonous reality, reshaping it in his own vision. 

Two decades later, we still need films like “Big Fish.” The mix of fantasy, imagination, and reality reminds us of the storyteller within us all. It's an antidote to our contemporary dystopia, one that's blighted by toxic misinformation, political lies, and stories that serve narcissistic ambitions at the expense of the underprivileged. Edward’s stories might be a stretch, a reality distortion, but they’re harmless. In this current political and cultural upheaval, perhaps Edward Bloom cannot only find new meaning and continue to endure but offer us hope in a time when we're desperate for some. Unlike narcissistic politicians who rewrite the truth, Edward, Sandra, and their friends don't deny it; they recognize it and choose to escape reality. “Big Fish” is a timely film that encourages discussions about the relationship between fact and fiction, truth and fake news, and how the two share a complicated bond that compromises each respectively.

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