Tim Burton has always been a hit and miss film-maker. When he’s on, he’s on (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice), but when he’s off, he’s … Planet of the Apes. Too often he’s a theme without a coherent plot (Batman Returns). However, with Big Fish, some of his favorite themes, alienation and the power of stories, combine with his strengths as a film-maker to craft a wonderful fable about fables.

Big Fish is about a father, Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney), and a son, Will Bloom (Billy Crudrup), and their inability to see anything of themselves in the other. Ed Bloom is a larger than life figure who tells tales and myths about his life, spinning so many stories that his son has never been able to tell where reality ends and fictional license begins. As the father is dying, Will–who grew up to become a journalist–decides to tell the story of his father and in so doing, learn about his father, and learn about himself by finding himself in his father’s story.

“A dangerous path is made that much harder by darkness.” –Edward Bloom

Click to enlargeLike The Odyssey, Big Fish is a series of adventures with Ed Bloom on the hero’s journey. Finding it hard to leave the perfect small town Specter is like the temptation of “heaven” or, rather, finding yourself at your intended destination too soon and becoming complacent in your journey. Next comes the circus, echoing the Biblical story of Jacob working seven years to marry Rachel. Then there’s the wooing of his true love, Sandra (Alison Lohman/Jessica Lange), his girl in the river (to put it in Arthurian terms), his “lady of the lake.” Along the way, he collects the tales and characters that make up his life. Finally, for the hero’s journey to come full circle, like Arthur off to Avalon, the hero dies. But his stories live on after him and in that way, he becomes immortal.

The central conflict in the movie revolves around the idea of the “truth” vs. the power of story. Ed Bloom blurs the line between fiction and reality so much that the son feels he doesn’t know his own father. His frustration grows out of trying to discern the truth of the events, only to find out confusing new information that makes him give up on the prospect entirely.

On one level, it reminds me of how my wife and I tell stories. We both convey the essence of truth, but she sticks more to the facts while I pursue the entertainment of the story (which means leaving out some facts and exaggerating others). On another level, this debate reminds me of how we often argue over the Bible. Sometimes it’s a matter of accepting the story, the metanarrative of God wooing man back to him, not dissecting it. Not reducing it to its parts to see how every theme or fact fits together. Not having it try to do things it wasn’t meant to do: be a faith proof text, be scientific doctrine, be political treatise, be historical document. It is a collection of stories within an over-arching story – a story we’ve chosen to let shape and form us. Will Bloom tried to explain it to his father this way:

“The thing about icebergs is you only see 10 percent of them. 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 … You tell lies, Dad. You tell amusing lies. Stories are what you tell a five year old at bedtime. They’re not elaborate mythologies you maintain when your son is ten and fifteen and twenty and thirty. And the thing is, I believed you. I believed your stories so much longer than I should have. And then when I realized that everything you said was impossible — everything! – – I felt like such a fool to have trusted you. You were like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined. Just as charming and just as fake.”

Faith is like that iceberg.

The thing about questions is that people want answers and we aren’t comfortable with the mysteries of unsatisfying answers. And when we think about it, how much do facts convey about us? The facts of me don’t sum me up, not the way the story of me would. Truth is communicated best in stories, which is probably why Jesus told so many parables.

“Do you love your father?” –Josephine Bloom (Marion Cotillard)

People are stories; we are all interconnected stories. One of the great things I have appreciated about working for Hollywood Jesus is how it has trained me to look at movies as stories and then connect those stories to Jesus. It’s a good exercise in how to approach people, too. Accepting people for who they are, where they are, and how they connect to the world, then finding a way to help them see how their story connects to Jesus.

“You become what you always were.” –Will Bloom

Our own story-telling culture isn’t dying. What was once a rich, oral tradition has just slowly been replaced by television and movies. We are the sum of our stories. Stories have a way of coming full circle. The power of story is in how it shapes and defines us. We all have stories that we’ve chosen to live by. Sometimes it’s only a matter of choosing the one best able to form you into who you were meant to be.

Big Fish is visually stunning, the flashback sequences having their own sense of vibrancy, with special effects used exquisitely to layer a canvas of dreams. Some movies exude charm and magic in their tale-telling, like Chocolat and Amelie. Big Fish is surely one of those type of movies, sure to enchant audiences.

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