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Film / Big Fish

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A 2003 fantasy drama film written by John August and directed by Tim Burton, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace.

Will Bloom, a journalist (Billy Crudup), returns home with his wife to visit his dying father Edward (elder played by Albert Finney, younger played by Ewan McGregor). He is displeased to find that his father continues to tell the same old tall tales he's told all his life. Still, he's determined to write his father's story, and searches for some of the people his father crossed paths with. The further he searches, the more he finds that those stories might not be as far-fetched as they once seemed.


This film provides examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: Edward suffers this after leaving Spectre, considering his shoes were stolen by Jenny (the town's ground is just that soft). He has to walk back through the forest barefoot, and his feet are very beaten up by the end of it.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's never made clear which death situation young Edward saw in the Witch's glass eye. It's possible that he viewed the elaborate, fantastical story that Will spins while Edward is on his deathbed, or that he simply saw Will himself telling that story.
  • Anachronic Order: Sort of. Edward's childhood encounter with the Witch is one of the first stories that he tells Will. We later learn that she was inspired by the adult Jenny, who began living alone after Spectre dried up and Edward rejected her. Because of the Unreliable Narrator, it's hard to tell where/if the latter events fit into Edward's tall tales, but it's still Lampshaded by Will.
    Will: Well, logically you couldn't be the Witch because she was old when he was young.
    Jenny: It's logical if you think like your father.
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  • Barefoot Captives: The town of Spectre steals the shoes of new visitors, forcing everyone to be barefoot so that they stay to the soft grasses of town and not leave through the painful woods around it.
  • Big "NO!": Sandra's reaction to the army sending her a notice thinking that Edward has died.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The ventriloquist scene, in which the Red Vietnamese/Chinese soldier is actually speaking in grammatically correct Filipino/Tagalog.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Edward dies, but dies knowing that William finally understands his love of storytelling after he tells a ribald story of how Edward's death would play out in one of his tall tales. In fact, it is shown that the modifications Edward gave to reality in his tall tales only made everyone else more special, not him.
  • Black Comedy: There's something extremely amusing about Don's death (having a heart attack while using the toilet with a Playboy magazine in hand).
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: In a sense. At the end, all of Edward's friends tell tales about him. What they say can't be heard, but judging by their smiling and laughing, they're positive remembrances.
  • Brutal Honesty: This is Will's main characterization—he always tries to speak the blunt, honest truth without tact as a kind of rebellion against his father's habits of telling tales and being vague. It's lampshaded when Will goes to meet Jenny and outright asks if the two were having an affair; Jenny laughs and remarks that she expected to dance around the question for another twenty minutes.
  • Business Trip Adultery: Will suspects his father had an affair while he was on the road and investigates. Subverted when it turns out that while Jenny loved Edward and certainly wanted this to happen, Edward was too devoted to Sandra.
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: When Josephine remarks that she wants to take Edward's picture, he laughs and tells her that it isn't necessary: "Just look up 'handsome' in the dictionary."
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Will pulls this on Edward at the beginning, accusing his father of being a self-centered asshole who hides behind tall tales because they're easier to deal with than the real world. The rest of the movie follows his attempts at reconciliation.
  • Casting Gag: Norther Winslow's criminal career either went on for a bit longer or had some interesting history.
  • The Catfish: The first of many tall tales spun by his father, notable for its occurrence during his son's birth.
  • Chekhov's Gun: As a child, Edward and some other children run into the Witch, and all of the children are shown what will happen when they die. One of the kids happens to be Don, and after we see his death in the glass eye, it is then fulfilled when Don actually dies.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • The little girl that steals Edward's shoes and later befriends him when he first arrives in Spectre turns out to be Jenny.
    • While a montage is shown of Edward's athletic highlights, it always shows another team member that always gets overshadowed by Edward. He turns out to be Don Price, Sandra's at-the-time fiance.
    • Sandra is Edward's wife and the subject or driving force of a few stories. While she cannot exactly corroborate everything that happened, she does confirm one or two of the stranger details in conversations with Will and Josephine, showing maybe Ed's stories aren't as far-fetched as Will believes.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: All of the scenes in the present have straightforward, natural-looking, lighting and grounded colors. All of Edward's stories, meanwhile, have vibrant, almost painterly colors to compliment their heightened reality.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Edward's calm answer to the North Korean duo's intimidating display of skillful martial arts is a pair of Night-Vision Goggles... and a total blackout.
  • Comfort the Dying: The climax of the film is Will telling his dying father, a lover and teller of tall tales of his life, a tall tale of his own in which Will helps his father escape the hospital and chased by the law enforcement but helped by all the characters from his father's tales until they reach the lake from his youth where everybody he's ever known is there to see him off and becomes the titular fish. Needless to say, his father is more the pleased to leave the mortal coil on that ending.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: The full idiom is "A very big fish in a very small pond."
  • Conjoined Twins: Ping and Jing, who provide the page image of the trope. In reality, they're not conjoined, but they are twins.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Zigzagged. It's implied that Norther Winslow becomes one at Wall Street after robbing banks doesn't work out so well. However, he is shown in a corporate office listening to Edward's plea to help Spectre in a later scene, so maybe he wasn't that corrupt.
  • Cradle To Grave Character: Edward's story is depicted from the birth to the end of his life.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Played with. There's nothing really wrong with the town of Spectre, it appears to be just as nice as everyone says it is. But its perfection is... unsettling, in a way that's hard to define, but still undeniable.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Invoked. Norther Winslow tries to make it as a professional thief, but it doesn't work out because Texas oil speculation has bankrupted the bank that he tries to rob. His response?
    "I should go to Wall Street. That's where all the money is.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The Witch, despite a bad reputation, does nothing more evil than show Ed and his friends their eventual deaths, at their own request.
  • Death Is Dramatic: Subverted. Edward dies quietly in the hospital after a stroke, but as he's fading out, Will tells him a far more dramatic story of how he always imagined the Edward Bloom of the tall tales would meet his end. Edward's last word is "Exactly..." before he peacefully passes on.
  • Defector from Paradise: Edward comes across the idyllic town of Spectre, where everyone is friendly, everyone is barefoot (so that they can't leave via the forest), and the culture is in an eternal stasis. Edward eventually decides he can't stay here when there's so much else he wants to accomplish in life. A poet there, Norther Winslow, also leaves after he's realizing he hasn't been able to write a single decent poem since he arrived, and becomes a bank robber then businessman. Years later they return and use their fortune to save the town from bankruptcy.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Played for Laughs in the montage of Amos telling Edward facts about Sandra month by month, in which Edward always has the same happy and blissful reaction ("[X]...she likes [X]") in completely inappropriate circumstances. These scenarios include being inside a cannon, cleaning elephant poop, and standing right in the middle of a Globe of Death.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: The eternally barefoot population of Spectre. A rare plot important example, because stealing new visitors' shoes is how the townspeople keep them from entering the forest to leave the town.
  • Don't Explain the Joke: Edward tells Will's wife an old dad joke, then explains the punchline. You can understand why Will got tired of listening to him.
  • Double Meaning: Each time the father starts to tell a story he mentions that "it's not a short story..." They are all TALL stories.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Edward tells Josephine about his apparent psychic abilities as a child. He frequently had dreams in which a giant crow appeared before him and told him that certain people were about to pass away; the next day, news of the death would reach the family. When the crow delivers the message "Your daddy is going to die," Edward's father spends the next day in a fearful, drunken stupor, remarking to his wife that he had the worst day of his life. Edward's mother promptly provides some Mood Whiplash with the punchline: "You think you had it bad? The milkman dropped dead on the porch this morning!"
  • Even the Guys Want Him: At the party in Spectre, Edward is dancing with the Mayor's wife, who says to him with a big grin "Jenny thinks you're quite a catch... We all do". The Mayor then takes her place in dancing with Edward, and he's also smiling. You can see the discomfort in Edward's face.
  • Exact Words: Edward relies on this for some of his stories.
    • The 'giant' was a man of abnormally large height, which Edward exaggerated for his tales.
    • The 'Siamese' twins were, while not conjoined, of Asian descent.
    • Edward offers to work for Amos for free if he'll tell him one fact about his mystery love each month. Amos takes the deal and technically sticks to it, but from what we see, all of the "facts" are simple trivia at best — her favorite flowers are daffodils, she likes music, and is going to college. It isn't until Edward "tames" Amos while he's in his wolf form that the circus owner gives him some genuine information, like the girl's name (Sandra Templeton) and where she lives. Not that any of the "facts" go to waste, however.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Edward is the only one to not be freaked out by seeing his death in the Witch's glass eye. In fact, he seems rather calm and accepting about it.
  • Fanservice: This is contrasted by the naked mermaid, who is almost exclusively seen from behind.
  • Flowers of Romance: As part of the Grand Romantic Gesture towards Sandra, Edward plants an almost endless sea of yellow daffodils (which are her favourite flowers) outside her window and telling her they're destined to be married. She's already engaged, but calls it off when her fiancé beats the crap out of Edward right there. Later, they get married.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Invoked. Edward knows how he's going to die, which hilariously lets him out of another life-threatening situation when he points out this isn't what the vision showed.
  • Gaussian Girl: Both the young Sandra and Jenny share this when they're in a rather romantic scene.
  • Gentle Giant: Karl. A giant of a man who just wants to be left alone.
  • Genre Shift: In-universe example. While Will's framing story stays constant, Edward's stories range from horror (the Witch, the Werewolf), to fantasy (Spectre, the Circus), to Romantic Comedy (the courtship of Sandra), to war (the Twins), to crime drama (Norther Winslow).
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: The Siamese twins Edward encounters when he accidentally parachutes into an enemy performance; they agree to help him if he finds a way to get them to America. (In the end, it's revealed they weren't actually conjoined, although they were twins from Siam.)
  • Grand Romantic Gesture: Edward stages several of these to win over Sandra, the biggest being the field of daffodils — 'cause they're her favourite flower. (Because Tim Burton wanted to avoid CGI in this film, those are all real daffodils.)
  • Grow Old with Me: Edward's favorite story is how he met and proposed to his wife of many years, Sandra.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: Norther Winslow, the alleged Poet Laureate of Ashton and Spectre. The best he could come up with after several years of work is "Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Spectre is Great!"
  • Interchangeable Asian Cultures: Edward's flashback to his war career has in parachuting in to a deliberately vague military camp in Asia. The logos and uniforms are made up, the time period isn't given, and Edward pre-parachuting is even reading a book called "How To Speak Asian". The Asian actors in this scene also speak different languages; the puppeteer speaks Tagalog, the soldier who escorts him offstage speaks Mandarin Chinese, the twins speak Cantonese, and the other soldiers speak Korean. This was done to keep the scene from setting itself in a specific war, and also possibly because Edward, as an American, might not be able to tell the difference between different Asian cultures.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • First:
      Jenny (age 8): How old are you?
      Edward: 18.
      Jenny (age 8): I'm 8. That means that when I'm 18, you'll be 28. And when I'm 28, you'll be 38.
      Edward: You're pretty good at arithmetic.
      Jenny (age 8): And when I'm 38, you'll only be 48. That's not much difference at all.
      Edward: Sure seems like a lot now though, huh?
    • Later:
      Edward: Your name's different. Did you get married?
      Jenny: Yeah. I was 18, he was 28. Turns out it was a big difference.
  • Jerkass: Sandra's first fiancé, Don. He's a brutish, short-tempered jerk who, upon seeing Edward talking to Sandra, beats the stuffing out of him — even though Edward refuses to fight back since he promised Sandra that he wouldn't hurt Don. Thankfully, Sandra realizes what a jerk he is and promptly ends the engagement.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Amos, the circus owner. He's implied to engage in some corrupt practices with his employees—upon meeting Karl and hiring him for the show, he asks if the giant has ever heard of the term "involuntary servitude"—and takes advantage of Edward's determination to meet Sandra to get free labor for three years. But he's ultimately a nice guy—after Edward saves him while he's in wolf form, he applauds the younger man's determination and shares everything he knows about Sandra, and later joins the group of investors buying Spectre to save it from ruin.
  • Karmic Death: After Don gives Edward a brutal No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, we then see him die in the same way that was previously shown in the witch's glass eye — having a heart attack on the toilet.
  • Lighter and Softer: Surprisingly, one of Tim Burton's few films that isn't dark or gothic, which is outside of his wheelhouse for his reputation.
  • Lonely Funeral: Subverted — it seems like no one but Ed Bloom's son Will will attend his funeral, but all of his old circus friends and acquaintances come and share stories about Ed.
  • Love at First Sight: Edward upon first seeing Sandra.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • Double Subverted. All of the stories that his father tells him start out plausible, but quickly become too fantastical to be anything but lies. But when he finds the official letter about his father actually having been shot down in Korea and declared dead, and he starts meeting the real people behind the stories, Will realizes that there might be more truth than fiction in all of them.
    • It should be noted the further on it gets in Edward's life, the decidedly less fantastical - if no less improbable - the stories get, with pre-Korean War stuff being more magic in nature and post-Korean War stuff being more coincidental. The kicker is how Ed's funeral shows even the more magical portions have the same level of truth-telling as the more coincidental portions.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Will finds mysterious payments his father made to Jenny and thinks it's evidence of an affair, but Jenny says that Edward stayed faithful all his life (not for Jenny's lack of trying though).
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Turns out the Old Witch is actually a very depressed and lonely Jenny. (The only thing crazy about her is the large amount of cats living with her). Edward was telling the truth, but he just exaggerated the story and the kids took his word literally. Karl as well.
  • Mood Whiplash: While at a bank, Edward somehow runs into Norther Winslow from Spectre, who tells him about how he's been encouraged to travel ever since Edward became the first person to leave the town. Edward asks him what he's doing at the bank.
  • Neglected Garden: Edward first meets the town of Spectre as an idyllic town covered in soft grass, to the point that everyone, including the Mayor and his young daughter Jenny, is constantly barefoot. When Edward comes back more than a decade later, a road has been built across Spectre, the town has gone bankrupt from debt, all the grass has dried, and an adult Jenny, now divorced and depressed (and resentful because of Edward's departure), lives in a run-down house with similarly unkempt bushes. After Edward saves the town and fixes Jenny's house, everything looks green again. However, after he rejects Jenny's advances and leaves forever, Jenny's house gets covered by vines, turning into the witch's house from the beginning of Edward's stories.
  • Never Heard That One Before: Will has heard Edward's stories so many times he can recite them word-for-word simultaneously with him.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Don gives one to Edward when he finds him with Sandra. Edward allows him to beat him up since he had sworn to Sandra not to fight back. Thankfully, Sandra is disgusted by Don's acts and immediatelly calls off the marriage.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Edward is accidentally shot in the shoulder in one scene, but even immediately after it doesn't seem to affect him much.
  • Politically Correct History: A minor example is that Will is delivered by a Black doctor. Tim Burton actually had to fight studio heads for this, who claimed it was historically inaccurate for a Black doctor to have delivered a white baby at that point in history, but Burton won them over by arguing that all of Edward's stories are idealized in a certain way.
  • Prophecy Armor: The hero Edward claims that he learned how he would die via a vision in a witch's eye, therefore, he can confront any situation knowing he won't die, such as talking to the surly giant Karl. One of his tall tales has him being attacked by carnivorous trees. But just before they kill him, Edward remembers out loud that this isn't how he dies, causing all the trees to back off.
  • Quirky Town: Spectre. Everyone is idyllically happy, nobody wears shoes.
  • Real After All: Will realizes that there is some truth to his father's tall tales when he discovers the letter that (incorrectly) declared him dead in the war and a deed to a house in Spectre. The finale at Edward's funeral reveals that all of the characters from his stories were real, although he exaggerated them for the telling: Ping and Jing are identical twins but not conjoined, Karl does have gigantism but isn't twenty feet tall, and so on.
  • Refusing Paradise: Edward Bloom's decision to leave Spectre. He essentially states that while he'd be happy to end up there eventually, he has to live his life first.
  • Rebuilt Pedestal: Will spent years without speaking to Edward because he became frustrated with his father's endless stories about himself, which Will saw as nothing more than self-aggrandizement. In the end, he comes to realize that Edward really was a remarkable man (even if he had a tendency towards exaggeration) and, more importantly, a loving father.
  • The Reveal: Edward Bloom passes away, drawing quite a crowd to his funeral. All the stories he told turn out to be true - but exaggerated. The twins are real, but not really conjoined; the giant is real, but only eight feet tall instead of twenty-odd feet tall; Amos Calloway is real, but probably isn't really a werewolf, and so on.
  • Savage Wolves: Edward is attacked by a wolf while searching for Amos Calloway one night. It jumps on him and gives him a good scare with how aggressive it is... but it's eventually subverted as Edward is able to "defeat" it by playing fetch with it, after which it calms down considerably. It also is Amos Calloway, who asks with genuine concern whether or not he hurt anyone the next day when he's human again.
  • Scare Dare: Here it's an abandoned house. It's a witch. For real. She is also the unlucky Love Interest, living backward in time.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Don Price. As a child, the Witch showed him that he would die at a very young age, and he became terrified of dying alone. As a result, he became incredibly possessive of Sandra, the first girl who agreed to marry him. Then, when Edward made advances on Sandra, Don beat him to a pulp. His violent actions shocked Sandra so much that she left him, and the physical exertion from the fight caused him to die of a heart attack at age 20. Just as the Witch predicted.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Edward Bloom. His son Will thinks he had an affair with Jenny until it turns out that it was completely platonic. Not for lack of trying on her part.
  • Sheathe Your Sword: When young Edward is confronted by a wolf or rather, Amos Calloway in werewolf form, he brandishes a stick as if to hit the wolf with it. Just before it charges, he throws it... past the wolf, and they have a friendly game of fetch.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Ed's particular problem, which has caused a few years of estrangement. No one can tell which stories he tells are true and which are just him spinning yarns.
  • Soap Opera Disease: We're never actually told what ailment Edward is dying from at the start of the movie. He's constantly bedridden, and has very little appetite, which would seem to suggest that it's cancer—but he ultimately dies after winding up in the hospital from an (apparently unrelated) stroke.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Edward relentlessly hunts down Sandra, deciding that she's going to be his wife, and sends messages to her until she loves him back.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: Amos delivers one piece of information about Sandra to Edward per month in return for his work at the circus, as promised. Until their last interaction, he provided completely worthless information like "she goes to college" and "she likes music."
  • Tall Tale: Played with. Some of Ed's stories are, to some extent or other, true, though it's never entirely clear which or to what extent.
  • That Reminds Me of a Song: A variant—"That reminds me of a story." Edward has a tale or joke for every scenario imaginable, and is always ready to tell them. In one instance, the syrup on his breakfast plate is enough to get him to start talking about a time when his car got stuck in a maple tree; when Will asks if he "knows about icebergs," he launches into a recollection about seeing one with a woolly mammoth trapped inside.
  • This Is My Story: "In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me." (although slightly subverted into a sort of This Is His Story As He Told It To Me.)
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Specte appears to be this at first, but in turns out to be just a Quirky Town.
  • Trapped in a Sinking Car: Downplayed. Will actually gets to enjoy the underwater world.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The premise of the movie is dependent on Edward having a knack for stretching the truth with his stories to the point where his estranged son thinks they're all fabrications, though played with as it turns out that his father wasn't exactly lying, but wasn't exactly telling the truth either.
  • Werewolves Are Dogs: Edward Bloom learns the circus ringmaster turns into a werewolf. One night he accidentally lets him out of his trailer, and a clown prepares to kill the monster with a silver bullet before it can wreak harm, but Edward defuses the situation by playing fetch with the wolf.
  • Wham Line: "Your father has had a stroke." It's really after this line that things start going downhill...
  • When Trees Attack: Soon after leaving Spectre for the first time, Edward is ambushed by a group of trees whose intents are far from friendly. However, it's subverted when Edward remembers how he would die in the Old Witch's magic eye and exclaims "This isn't how I die!", making the trees leave him alone immediately.
  • Wicked Witch: Averted: the Witch of the Swamp is certainly old and mysterious, but she's not evil and offers to let people see into her death-predicting glass eye if they ask politely.
  • Wolf Man: Amos is revealed to be this if you believe Ed's stories.