If the garrulous Edward Bloom's (Albert Finney) tall tales are to be believed--and his skeptical son, Will (Billy Crudup), has heard them too many times to believe a word--when Bloom was a boy in Ashton, Ala., he looked into the eye of the town witch and saw a vision of his own death. That's how he knew that when he left town to pursue his fortune, accompanied by a giant, he wouldn't die in a spider-infested forest en route to a secret backwoods town where no one ever wears shoes. That's how he knew he'd survive the Korean War, making a daring escape with the help of two beautiful singing conjoined twins. But now Will's father is on his deathbed, and his estranged son returns home to make a final attempt to reconcile fact with fiction.
As you can see, Tim Burton's "Big Fish" has a high whimsy quotient. This candy-colored fable treads a fine line between the wacky and the elegiac, and doesn't always keep its balance. With Ewan McGregor playing the young Bloom, it jumps back and forth between the "real" world of a bruised family and the fantastical story of Bloom's life--as he prefers to tell it. Written by John August, "Big Fish" can be too pleased with its own quirkiness, and it takes dangerously long to get in gear. But midway through Edward's epic courtship of his wife, Sandra (Alison Lohman, and later Jessica Lange), when he joins Danny DeVito's traveling circus, the tale's gentle magic starts to take hold.
When it catches fire, this great-looking movie offers hilarious diversions. And as father and son struggle toward a hard-won reconciliation, "Big Fish" reveals its beating heart. Think of Burton's movie as an overelaborate dessert: there's too much whipped cream on top, but once you get down to the pie it's pretty darn sweet.