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Review: Reel in 'Big Fish'

Fanciful tale is director Tim Burton's best

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Big Fish
Billy Crudup carries Albert Finney in "Big Fish."

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(CNN) -- The fantasy/drama "Big Fish" is the best work to date from one of Hollywood's most eccentric and innovative directors, Tim Burton.

Stories real and imagined are blended with total delight in this myth-laden movie about a man named Edward Bloom. Bloom, played by Albert Finney, loves to spin tales about his extraordinary life full of improbable adventures -- including those involving a giant named Karl, a one-eyed witch, conjoined Korean lounge singers, and (yes) a big fish that refused to be caught.

Bloom never lets the facts get in the way of telling a good story, and for years, these yarns about his wild adventures have charmed everyone around him -- everyone except his estranged son Will, played by Billy Crudup. As Will grows up, the stories begin to lose their charm when he realizes just how wild they really are, and how his father uses them to disguise his real self.

Eventually, the two men are driven apart. But when Edward becomes fatally ill, his wife, Sandra, played by Jessica Lange, attempts to bring her husband and son together to be reconciled. For Will, it's an opportunity to try to separate his father's myths from reality. It's not an easy chore.

Back in time

Now the past and present become intermingled as Edward once again spins his tales. We meet Edward as a young man, played by Ewan McGregor, and Sandra as a young woman, played by Alison Lohman. As Will struggles to separate fact from fantasy, we follow the younger Edward on his magical exploits.

Big Fish
Jessica Lange plays Finney's character's wife; her younger self is played by Alison Lohman, seen here.

"Big Fish" is based on the Daniel Wallace novel "Big Fish, A Story of Mythic Proportions" and was adapted for the big screen by John August. The fish of the title refers not only to all of those tales about "the fish that got away," but also Edward's desire for adventure and his determination to explore the world, not to be a big fish in a small pond. His stories are also extremely "fishy" -- and, like a fish, Edward can be very slippery when he wants to be.

On the surface, this is a wonderful tale beautifully caught on film by director of photography Philippe Rousselot, who won an Oscar for his work on 1993's "A River Runs Through It." His cinematography, combined with Burton's exquisite imagination, helps this film sweep you -- visually and emotionally -- into an alternate universe.

But dig deeper and "Big Fish" is also a compelling look at the relationships between fathers and sons, and the child coming to terms with the parent's mortality.

Great cast, great performances

Big Fish
The movie is filled with director Tim Burton's trademark absurd and fantastical images.

The casting is picture-perfect. McGregor is brilliant as the young Edward, and Lohman is astounding as Lange's lookalike younger self.

Lange herself is heartbreaking as a woman facing the loss of her husband, and Finney turns in an award-worthy performance as Edward at the end of his days. Crudup gives a strong, well-measured performance as the son in search of his father's past.

Danny DeVito is excellent in a small role as a circus owner who hires the young Edward, and Steve Buscemi plays a character who goes from poet to bank robber to Wall Street baron. Helena Bonham Carter -- Burton's off-screen romantic partner -- gives a delightful turn as the one-eyed witch.

"Big Fish" is indeed a fish story worth telling -- and pardon the pun, but this movie has Oscar bait written all over it.

"Big Fish" opened in limited release last month and goes nationwide on Friday, January 9. It's rated PG-13.

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