Real Fantasy: Fantasy and Reality in Burton’s BIG FISH
20 May 2012
As auteur, Tim Burton generally casts aside reality in favor of fantasy with his films, and his 2003 fantasy-adventure Big Fish is no exception. With Big Fish, Burton emphasizes fantasy by exploring what the tall tales of a dying man may look like. However, unlike other films in his repertoire, Burton also calls attention to reality within Big Fish, making the dying man’s son a realist who cannot understand his wildly imaginative father. Thus, half of Big Fish captures realism and the other half fantasy, pitting the two against each other. From one perspective, fantasy wins out at the end, but what is more interesting than that is, during the clash between the two, Burton casually slips in his reason for preferring fantasy over reality, or, perhaps better phrased, why he may think reality is best captured through fantasy.
Adapted from Daniel Wallace‘s novel of the same title, Big Fish is about a life-long conflict between a father and son. The father, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney/ Ewan McGregor), tells tall tales, rearranging his life as a series of wild and unrealistic adventures, while the son, William (Billy Crudup), is a realist who cannot understand why his father has to shape-shift life to make it worthwhile. After not speaking for years, William, who is now married and living in Paris, returns home to America when he hears his father is dying. Desperate to understand his father and perhaps even reconcile in the little time they have left, William embarks on a journey to uncover the root of some of his father’s most famous stories, all in an effort to sift the fantasy from the reality.
In Big Fish, Edward says, “Most men, they’ll tell you a story straight through. It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting either.” This statement sets the tone for the entire film, as it seems to reveal Burton’s own feelings about storytelling, specifically filmmaking. Burton, at times, avoids “straight through” stories; he often explores non-linear or unstable narratives, a staple of film noir, a style of filmmaking which consistently influences Burton’s work. Big Fish is not a film noir, however the non-linear narrative is an echo of the style. Moreover, the aforementioned quote implies that linear narratives are simplistic and boring, suggesting that realism, which would be expressed in a linear narrative that mirrors reality, is not as appealing as fantasy. When read on this slant, Burton’s Big Fish makes the claim that fantasy is more engaging than reality, or that reality is only engaging when transformed into fantasy.
But the question remains, how is fantasy more complicated, interesting, and engaging? There is not direct answer to this question, however Big Fish, in its fantasy sequences, captures moments that, perhaps, suggest a possibility. The most captivating of the sequences are those that illogically trace the roles of the witch and Jenny in Edward’s life.
Early on in the film, in one of Edward’s tall tales, a youthful Edward and his friends seek out a witch (Helena Bonham Carter). Supposedly, when a person looks into the witch’s glass eye that person will see their death. Edward bravely knocks on the witch’s old, decrepit shack one night, as his friends fearfully wait at a safe distance. Edward, an honest, straight-forward boy, explains to the witch that he and his friends would like to meet her and look in her eye, to which the witch agrees. In all, the night went from terrifying to triumphant for Edward. He was afraid, at first, of the witch and her shack, but confronted that fear, leaving the witch a more confident, self-assured young man.
Later, at 18, Edward stumbles upon an isolated but picturesque town, Ashton. The residents tell Edward that he has arrived too early, but welcome him anyway and, at first, he feels a great relief to have found this community. One resident in particular, a little girl, named Jenny, takes a special liking to Edward. And, when he eventually realizes the time has come to leave Ashton, she makes him promise that he will return one day. He promises and departs.
Years later he does return to Ashton, which is now in shambles. Resolved to restore the town to its former glory, Edward devotes all his time to buying each piece of property from the residents in order to claim Ashton as historic and refurbish it. Yet, one resident won’t sell, and that resident is Jenny, who is now a grown woman. Eventually he persuades her to sell, and the town is restored; yet, Jenny claims that the first time Edward came to Ashton he was too early, and this time he is too late; by this time Edward is married and unable to enter a relationship with Jenny. Although he does have feelings for Jenny, Edward loves his wife and departs Ashton a second time, when the restoration is complete, leaving Jenny alone. As time goes on, her sorrow and longing transform her house into an old, decrepit shack, and her into a witch.
If Edward were to meet the witch when he was a boy, how could he meet Jenny, as a girl, years later? In reality, this is impossible, but in fantasy it is allowed. It is an illogical aspect of the narrative, but it is complicated and interesting. The truth is, even without explanation, the role of Jenny/witch is engaging and powerful. The use of fantasy frees viewers from the constraints of reason, bringing them to a place that operates strictly on emotions. This enhances the emotional quality of the film. Moreover, the emotions the audience feels mirror the emotions of Edward, and, however illogical, make his experience relatable to viewers.
Reviewing the witch and Jenny’s roles in the film for their emotional power and symbolism, at first Edward’s encounter with the witch evokes fear. The setting is dark and ominous. Yet, Edward confronts that fear, and his first interaction with her reveals a fantastical “face your fears” experience; the audience, like Edward, leave that sequence a bit braver having survived the witch. When Edward encounters the young Jenny, during his first visit to Ashton, Edward is an outcast who stumbles into a community who open their hearts to him. However, he found his way their accidentally, and is not comfortable with settling at 18. In addition, his yearning for adventure and self-discovery forces him out of Ashton and back into the world outside. Edward, at this time, is young, and Jenny, too, is a child herself, and the town is picturesque and inviting; innocence radiates throughout the community. However, that’s not enough for Edward, and it does not bring the audience satisfaction, and so he must continue on. The third time he encounters Jenny they are both older and wiser, with a great deal of love between them. But, Edward is too late, and too much time has passed between when he left the town and his return. Jenny and Edward cannot be together, and that dooms her to a life of seclusion and isolation. Literally, she becomes a thing of the past, and figuratively she ages into the past, as a witch who eventually crosses paths with a young Edward all those years before when he bravely knocked upon her door hoping to peer into the future.
When looked at it this way, there is a lot of reality in the fantasy. Although Big Fish presents fantastical visuals, an illogical narrative structure, and refuses conventionality and every turn, there is a lot of truth in it, truth about real life, which, in some ways, is very relatable for audiences. Perhaps this is part of the answer to how fantasy is more complicated, interesting, and engaging than reality; by stepping away from reality, into fantasy, viewers gain a new perspective on life. Perhaps that new perspective does not make what is right in front of us easier to see, but it may make it easier to feel.
Big Fish concludes with, “A man tells so many stories, that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal,” and this is, inevitably, what happened to Edward, and what will happen to Burton.