Big Fish



The same stretch of the river where it all began. A CROWD of
more than 100 waiting.

As we get closer to the river, we
see everybody’s already there. And I
mean everybody.

Amos Calloway is here with the circus folk. We also find
Edward’s Mother and Father, the Mayor, and many others from
along the way. No one has aged a day since we saw them last.

He’s here!

The crowd CHEERS. The Ashton marching band PLAYS. Edward pulls
off his shoes, tying the laces together. He hands them to Josephine.
She throws them up at the powerline.They loop over.


It’s unbelievable.

Story of my life.

And the strange thing is, there’s
not a sad face to be found. Everyone’s
just so glad to see you, and send
you off right.


Will walks into the river, up to his knees. He turns back so
his father can face the crowd. Edward waves.

Goodbye everybody! Farewell! Adieu!

But one face is missing from the crowd — Sandra. Will turns
to see she’s already standing in the river beside them.The reflection
of the light off the water gives Sandra an unearthly glow.

My girl in the river.

She kisses him. He tweaks her chin. The crowd HOLLERS in
approval, but their moment remains strangely private. As the
kiss ends, Edward tries to pull off his wedding ring. But it’s
stuck. Finally, he sucks on it, pulling it free with his teeth.
A look to Will, a smile with a glint of gold. Edward suddenly
drops out of Will’s arms with a SPLASH. he’s no longer a man,
but a big catfish. We watch as the catfish circles, then heads
for deeper water, disappearing.


Throughout Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003), we follow in Edward Bloom’s footsteps and take part of his extraordinary stories that blur the borders between reality and fantasy. This extract is taken from the concluding stages of the film, but it is not the final scene. This is of significance and is one of the many elements that point towards the dual nature of the ending. The scene depicts the end of Edward’s life, but the narrative continues after his death, which reflects on the tension between closure and continuance. Burton plays with this paradoxical nature, as well as he comments on the end and its relation to the individual, and consequently, the individual’s desire to create a satisfying one.

Cinema is a very visual medium and mise-en-scene (costumes, setting, lighting, etc.) is one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker can use to convey the tone of a scene. Burton is known for his distinctive visual style, and he never fails to utilize mise-en-scene to the fullest. In this scene he relies heavily on lighting, as it has allowed him to create two scenarios that starkly contrast each other. In the hospital, an artificial, blue light is used to create a sterile and unfriendly environment, while the warm, natural rays of the sun illuminate the ceremonial farewell-scene by the river. The juxtaposition of the two scenes showcase the individual’s desire to create a satisfying ending, as the scene by the river is a figment of Will’s imagination, constructed to create an ending worthy of his father.

The framing, and movement of the camera further enhance the tension between the two locations. By the river, the camera is constantly moving to create a sense of motion and dynamism. The use of the long-shot also allows the audience to fully experience the impressive nature of the scene, as we are able to take in a greater deal more of the scene. The camera tracks Edward’s journey to the river, as he passes through a crowd of cheering people, whom he has crossed paths with during his life. It is the grandest of closures Will is creating for his father. In the hospital-scene, on the other hand the camera remains static and use of close-ups of both Edward and his son enhances the claustrophobic nature of the environment.

The difference of medium has resulted in somewhat different storytelling-techniques, but the use of symbols and motifs remains similar to those used in other mediums. This is particularly visible through Edward’s relation with water. Water is a very interesting symbol in relation to the ending as is charged with duality and ambiguity. Not only can it be seen as a symbol for life, but also death, since water not only gives life, but also takes it back. In this case water also works as metaphor of the ways of storytelling, as Edwards becomes one with his stories as he is immersed by the river. By meeting his end, he becomes immortal by living on through his stories. Thus, the image of a continuing conclusion is complete, as the end is a necessary step Edward needs to take, in order to reach something resembling immortality.

Water also has spiritual connotations, as it is not only linked to the origins of life, but also with the image of purity. One way to look at it is to relate it back to one of the most prominent theme in the scene – death. Once again the conclusive nature of it is challenged. The ritual of dying is also an essential feature. In his final moments, Edward returns to a virtually infant, or, pure state. Even though the two scenes contrast each other, the final moments of Edward’s life are strikingly similar, which suggests a universality. Like an infant, Edward is tied to the hospital bed and is dependent on those around him. Even by the river he is dependent on his son to carry him to the river. Like the borders between reality and artifice are blurred out, so are the borders between infancy and elderliness, which conveys a circular image the ending, since he returns to his beginning.

Even if there are not any explicit religious connotations, the scene by the river does have a spiritual atmosphere. Like a child about to be baptized as he is carried to the river, and as he is nearing the end, his shoes are symbolically dispatched, suggesting that his new (after)life is about to begin as he is stripped of all earthly belongings. Neither is there “a sad face to be seen” (see script). It is a ceremonial and joyful event, as all his friends are there “to send [him] off right” (see script). A slight religious aspect could also be seen as Edward’s transformation alludes to the Buddhist belief of reincarnation. We once again see the circular image.

Even though Burton has been hailed as Hollywood’s ‘Prince of outsiders’*, one should not oversee Big Fish’s position as a major Hollywood production. It is a self-aware film, and everything from the mise-en-scene, to Danny Elfman’s whimsical score, to use of famous stars, culminate in an effort to make the film critically, and foremost financially successful. Furthermore, whether it is salute or parody, the ending exposes conventions used in both contemporary and classical Hollywood films. For example, they way that the light allows Sandra to have “an unearthly glow” (see script), could be a reference to three-point lighting: a technique frequently used to beautify the stars in Classical Hollywood.

Big Fish has a rather “happy ending”, a stigma closely connected to mainstream Hollywood features. Even so, the characteristic of this particular ending raises questions of viewership, circulation and the reception of films. Hence the ending serves as a good starting point of discussion. Film is often seen as in inferior art form to that of literature, but it is a rather extraordinary medium, and many of the possibilities unique to cinema are showcased in this scene from Big Fish. The ending is a complex construct and as shown earlier, rich discussion can arise when one decides to look at it closer.

* Clare Stewart, Festival Director of the 2012 BFI London International Film Festival.

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