Picks and Pans Review: Big Fish

updated 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter

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Can we ever really know our parents completely? That's the question at the strongly beating heart of this brilliantly fantastical film from inventive director Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow). Though overstuffed at times, Big Fish ends up hooking a viewer emotionally as few movies have this year. Don't miss it.

A febrile mix of straight narrative and magic realism, the movie begins with journalist Will Bloom (Crudup) being summoned from his job in Paris to the bedside of his dying father, Edward (Finney), back home in Ashton, Ala. "We were like strangers who knew each other very well," Will says of his father. The son wants to connect before it's too late. He hopes to pin down the truth behind the seemingly larger than life, braggadocio-filled stories Dad has been telling for years. Did Edward really befriend a giant? Stumble upon a ghost town called Spectre? Parachute behind enemy lines during the Korean War?

As the movie easily shuttles between present and past, depicting Edward's picaresque adventures (with McGregor playing the younger Edward), the real mystery Fish wants to solve becomes clear: How can any of us fully grasp our parents' complexity—and accept that they may die still leaving questions unanswered. McGregor is likably brash as a young man out to conquer the world. As the older Edward, a prickly Finney suggests a magnificent creature—like the titular fish—who can never quite be caught. Crudup's needy son is essentially colorless, but he comes into his own in the movie's cathartic final scenes. Lange and Alison Lohman impress with quiet resolve as, respectively, the older and younger versions of Edward's wife—his one true love. (PG-13)


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