Tim Burton takes a stab at a more personal story with this adaptation of Daniel Wallace's novel. The film follows a son trying to make sense of all the tall tales his dying father spoke about since he was a kid in order to maybe find a connection with him before it's too late.
The tall tales in question lend themselves to a lot of fantasy and Burton imagery from werewolves to giants and witches. The tone of the film, however, is very different than what you'd expect from that particular director. A lot of it is surprisingly earnest and you even get a good chunk of the film set in the unaltered real world, a rarity for Burton. Billy Crudup plays the disapproving son and Albert Finney the story-telling dad with a pre-Oscar Marion Cotillard popping up as Crudup's wife. The dynamic between these characters is a tense, interesting one as it's Burton trying his hand at straight-up drama (with a touch of humour, of course) and, although fans of his most stylised stuff might switch off early on, it works and it remains involving. The more fantastical part of the film sees Ewan McGregor as a young Albert Finney playing out the very tall tales Crudup's character hates. This is when Burton allows himself to have a little fun but, even then, he does so in a restrained, unfamiliar way. Seeing a director with such a pinned-down style come out of himself like that is worth it alone.
That said, the casting of McGregor is a bit of a questionable one as his portrayal of Ed Bloom is completely earnest and often rather corny. We're meant to relate to and love this guy yet he comes off as so self-involved and happy with himself that it's not always easy. The irony you'd expect from a Tim Burton film isn't missing entirely but it's honestly barely there which means that it's kind of hard to see what the film is trying to do and where it's going for a while but, by the end, it all makes sense. If all else fails, Big Fish's third act should get you. The tear-jerker ending is so well orchestrated that you'd really need to have a heart of stone to not be charmed by it. Sure it's somewhat manipulative, as these types of dramas often are, but it does work as you realise that you liked a character more than you thought you did and Burton finds some light in an otherwise bittersweet resolve. Other cast members having a good time in this include Danny DeVito as a circus ringmaster, Steve Buscemi as a friendly villager-turned-bank-robber and Helena Bonham Carter in dual roles.
While not exactly typical Tim Burton fare, Big Fish still keeps a lot of what makes a lot of his films so charming intact. This is, however, a more emotional, serious-ish effort and, although its most earnest parts nearly enter the realm of "cheesy", it overall avoids that rather well and delivers a heartfelt little film with enough random stuff in it to keep everyone happy.