Tall Tales of Big Fish: The Legacy of Storytelling

Big Fish is a film that captures the excitement, magic, love, pain, and creativity of storytelling by showing the audience a story of a son who does not understand his father’s obsession and love of telling tall tales instead of telling things straight. The film is a tale of growing up, facing the realities of adulthood, and leaving a legacy. Big Fish may seem to be a film filled with sentimental fantasy on the surface, but beneath its many layers are some incredible themes that demonstrate why storytelling in any form is important to the world we live in.

In the film, Will is a boy who grows up hearing his father Edward’s tall tales about how his life was. In the opening of the film we see that Will goes from being engrossed in the experience as a child to despising the stories as an adult. He believes that these stories are a way to cover up just who his father was. The father refuses to even acknowledge that his stories aren’t true. The film presents these tales in a very fantastical way that shows the audience what Will perceived to be what the stories looked like literally. The film begins with Edward claiming that “on the day Will was born, I was out catching an enormous uncatchable fish, using my wedding ring as bait.” Will of course gawks at the idea as he believes he knows the true story of what his father was doing, and it wasn’t catching a fish. On Will’s wedding day there is a falling out between Will and Edward as each of their perceptions of “reality” conflicts. Will and Edward don’t talk again for three years until Will gets the call that his father is dying of cancer. Will goes back to spend his father’s last days with him. It is in these final days that Will really investigates just what happened in his father’s stories, and while investigating these stories Will discovers that there may have been a different kind of truth in Edward’s tall tales than what he expected.

Edward’s life story is very much a coming of age and growing into adulthood story told in a very unconventional way. The way Edward tells the story (with a very Mark Twain like southern style) is very much metaphorical, but the film shows these stories in a very literal way. One example of this is when he explains that “when you see your true love; time stops”. The film then mimics this as we see Edward walking through a crowd of people frozen in time as he pursues the woman he is in love with. This approach certainly gives the movie something very rare and unique as it blends fantasy and reality together; leaving what is true and what is embellished up to the audience’s interpretation. This ambiguity really allows the audience to understand what Will’s frustration is as Edward’s son.

As Will investigates Edward’s stories he is drawn to the town of Spectre, a town from the stories, where he discovered his father owns quite a bit of property. When Will discovered Spectre he begins interviewing the people in the area and eventually makes his way to a rundown house owned by a woman named Jenny. As Will begins asking questions, he quickly learns that Edward’s stories about the town were not completely untrue as a younger version of Jenny was one of the characters in one of Edward’s stories. Jenny reveals a different version of the Edward’s Spectre story by explaining that Edward saved the town from being destroyed by a bad economy. She also reveals that she attempted to have an affair with Edward as she had had a crush on him ever since she was a little girl and he first arrived in Spectre. Will leaves Spectre feeling confused as Jenny revealed to Will that there was truth to his stories, even if he wasn’t exactly sure what it all meant. He begins to reexamine his understanding of the stories. The conclusion of the movie begins with Edward dying as Will tells what he believes is a satisfactory end to his father’s life story. After hearing his son tell him this tale, he passes away. At the funeral, Will sees many unexpected guests that are actually the real versions of the characters from his father’s stories. The final scene of the film reveals that Will does come around after his father has passed, and he is actually telling the stories of his father to his own son.

This lengthy summary of the story is very necessary to have a full understanding of what this film is doing.  Edward is attempting to pass down everything he has learned to Will, and the best way he knows how to do this is to tell stories. His message is hidden under layers of metaphor and fantasy. Will does not understand the metaphors from these stories, and believes his father is lying to him, but at the end of the movie Will discovers that these stories are not as farfetched as he believed. Will then comes to an understanding that his father was telling him stories or myths his entire life, but what he could not wrap his mind around for the longest time was that these myths were not untrue. These stories were Edward’s legacy, and I believe this understanding of how legacy and storytelling go hand and hand is probably the most essential theme in Big Fish.

In our current generation media has become an incredibly big influence. There are now plenty of different types of media like books, movies, comic books, video games, radio, ect. that pass on stories to the masses. In our current culture there have been groups of people who have claimed that such stories are distractions, a waste of time, and essentially meant to be mindless entertainment. Big Fish is a film that explains that these accusations are not true; there are more to stories than what is on the surface. There are lessons to be drawn from all sorts of different stories, and it is up to the audiences to understand what the meaning in the stories are. These stories passed down are meant to give life meaning, value, and an understanding of the world. These stories are meant to be the legacy created and left behind by past generations.

The messages from the stories are not always clear cut and may require some interpretation which is part of the magic of storytelling. At the beginning of the film Edward tells the story of how he nearly caught a big fish on the day his son was born. Near the end of the movie we learn that Edward was in Spectre the day he was born, and I believe that the wedding ring that was used as bait was meant to represent Edward’s marriage to his wife, and I believe the big fish was Will. Edward was fishing with his marriage, and what he almost caught was a son, but as the film demonstrates, Will and his father quickly drift apart which is just like the fish in the story. I believe that when he was in Spectre, he almost destroyed his marriage by having an affair with Jenny, but it was his son’s birth that saved his marriage. Edward never explains this because I believe that he wanted that story to be part of his legacy and he wanted his son to see this for himself. He wanted his son to understand the importance of storytelling so that he could do the same for his children.

Overall this is a film that demonstrates many different themes, but the film’s centerpiece seems to be the legacy of storytelling, and the film does a magnificent job at presenting it in a very unconventional way. Although the literal visualizations of metaphorical stories may chase some people away, I believe that storytelling method only further proved the point the film was making. The film has many layers and the message may not be easily accessible, but for people who love storytelling in any variety of ways, there is a lot to learn about why storytelling is so important.

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