While the sold-out Danny Elfman/Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box is set to celebrate one of the most successful composer/director partnerships in film history, not every project has yielded the best in either artist. One such occasion is 2003’s BIG FISH. Albert Finney stars as Edward Bloom, a teller of tall tales, whose colorful life–full of giants and werewolves, Korean Siamese twins/lounge singers, a witch with a glass eye that can see the future, and a big fish that refuses to be caught—charms everyone except his son (Billy Crudup). With Bloom on his deathbed, father and son must come to terms with what is the truth.
Burton has never been a director known for character development in his films. While this film accomplishes more than many of his other films, when all is said and done, John August’s script adds up to little more than a series of vignettes, some more charming than others.
Finney is full of bluster as the dying Bloom, and had he been given a couple of extra meaty scenes, he might have had a chance at a long-overdue Oscar. Jessica Lange is wasted, yet still manages to create a lasting impression as Finney’s wife. Ewan McGregor has the most screen time as the younger Bloom, but is forced to anchor his performance more on wide-eyed innocence than on any actual character provided in the script. The rest of the myriad names in the cast serve as mainly cameo roles.
The film casts Elfman in sensitive mode. Because of the vignette nature of the story, there isn’t much of a musical through-line and the score is often as slippery as the eponymous title character. However, some elements of the music do stand out.
Given the Alabamian locale, a solo fiddle brings an appropriately Southern flavor to the score. A seven-note theme soars along with Bloom’s love for Sandra (Alison Lohman and Lange). Elfman’s music is most effective, as is the film, when it pulls back for its quieter moments, such as the simple piano solo conveying honest emotions in the tender tub scene between Finney and Lange.
Because the film never stays with one character long enough for us to really care, the music often serves as aural window dressing on top of Burton’s typically first-rate design team. Still, even though I was never completely drawn in, Elfman’s score in the final scene soars with emotion that is missing from most of the film. In a finale that will resonate with anyone who wishes they could say goodbye to their loved ones one last time, the moment is guaranteed to wring a tear from all but the most hardhearted of souls.
Though the film was poised as major Oscar bait with some major Golden Globe nominations behind it, only Elfman’s score received an Oscar nod. The music hovers closer to the beauty of EDWARDS SCISSORHANDS and GOOD WILL HUNTING, a style I prefer to the composer’s more bombastic and busy action scores. However, while the score overall contains some simple—and simply exquisite—moments, it unfortunately never quite engages me, much like the movie itself.