The title refers to the elusive river dweller with which Edward Bloom (Finney) claims to have had a close encounter, and to Edward himself, whose exploits have made him an outsize hero in small-town Alabama. His son, Will (Billy Crudup, more opaque than he needs to be), has long since tired of Edward's tall tales when he's summoned home to his deathbed. An ultra-rational journalist, Will is determined to separate truth from legend. The family saga alternates with episodes from Edward's fabled life, beginning with the childhood vision, courtesy of a one-eyed witch (Helena Bonham Carter), that shows him how he will die--foreknowledge that gives him courage as he embarks on his travels as a young man (Ewan McGregor). A gentle giant, a conjoined-twins singing act, a frustrated poet (Steve Buscemi) and a circus owner with a wild streak (Danny DeVito) all play roles in Edward's story, which unfolds in sequences of well-realized magic realism.
Burton has made terrific matches between the present-day and younger versions of Edward and his wife, Sandra; besides the physical resemblance in each pairing, there's a real sense that the actors are playing the same character. McGregor and Finney both express a gleeful fearlessness, while Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange are the same dewy-eyed, loving woman. Lange manages to infuse her small role with great feeling, but she, Lohman and Marion Cotillard, as Will's pregnant French wife, don't get to do much except be gorgeous and supportive. Bonham Carter is the exception among the females here, playing two more-complex roles.
The fantasy and father-son story dovetail nicely in the final sequence, which turns the tables of the relationship between Edward and Will in a satisfying and moving fashion. But there's a sense of strain at times in the mechanical back-and-forth of the film's progression, keeping it from achieving the transcendent whimsy that has marked past extravaganzas from Burton and preventing this "Big Fish" from swimming free. Starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume and Marion Cotillard. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by John August. Produced by Richard Zanuck, Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks. A Columbia release. Family Fantasy/Drama. Rated PG-13 for a fight scene, some images of nudity and a suggestive reference. Running time: 125 min