Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003) and Ang Lee’s 3D Life of Pi (2012) have a lot in common, and it’s not just the fish or the almost overwhelming cinematography and artistic design that transcend the ordinary.
Besides the fact that both films are based on novels, their common bond is the larger than life idea of fish and creation, imaginary worlds, and telling a fantastical story using metaphor, analogy and fable. Both stories share themes about life and death, about faith and miracles, about doubt and belief, and the mythic hero’s journey. Finally these films ask big questions about what it takes to believe, what is the value of our human experience and if we can trust the information that comes to us through our senses and ultimately where it leads us. Both films challenge the audience’s stubbornness and fickleness when it comes to faith, and finally we are left to consider if it is necessary to discern the difference between fact and truth, between the material and the spiritual, in order to believe.
In Big Fish, Will (Billy Crudup) is a journalist who has not spoken to his now dying father, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney/Ewan McGregor), in three years. Will has little patience with his relentless storytelling dad and believes his father has only told him colorful lies and so he does not really know his father. Will is about to be married and demands to know the truth from Edward. And so Edward answers with another fantastical tale about his birth, boyhood, and journey toward manhood. Eventually the story becomes Will’s too, in one of the most moving reconciliation sequences in contemporary cinema.
Life of Pi opens with a writer (Rafe Spall) too, though he is seeking a story to write. He listens as Pi (Irrfan Kahn/Ayush Tandon) relates his life story that began in India where he was a Hindu, a Catholic Christian, and a Muslim at the same time, across oceans to finally land in Canada with nothing but his story.
Pi says that his studies are in zoology and religion and that he was named after a famed swimming pool in France: Piscine Molitor Patel. Indeed water plays a prominent role in his life. His father runs a zoo in their city of Pondicherry, a former French colony, and when Pi is a teenager his dad moves the family, with the animals, to Canada for political reasons. It is on this journey that the ship sinks and Pi alone escapes on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger that Pi calls Richard Parker.
Pi and the tiger come to an uneasy coexistence and last 227 days before landing briefly on a mystical island and then the coast of Mexico. Though the people accept Pi, the insurance adjustors from the shipping company cannot accept his story because they cannot verify it and so Pi tells another that they like better even if they cannot prove it is true.
The similarities between the two sumptuously illustrated cinematic stories are manifold: one is about that human faith in a father-son relationship and the other about transcendent faith in God in a relationship with the world, indeed the universe. Yet, each story is about the other because they both feature men who stand for or seek existential meaning and truth to discover the unity between earth and heaven. In Big Fish, however, objective truth seems to exist, though Will must see as through a mirror, through fantastical metaphor. In Life of Pi truth appears to be more subjective and is revealed through allegory, a fable.
If there is one message from both Big Fish and Life of Pi it is that everything is true and some of it really happened.
Because we are people with a confounding inconsistent preference for both the concrete and the abstract in stories, or a blend of the two, the best that modern day storytellers, that is the filmmakers, can hope for is that the audience will suspend disbelief, enter the story and actively seek to make meaning from what they have seen and heard.
Neither Tim Burton or Ang Lee impose meaning. Instead their bizarre narratives irritate us into making our own if we have the patience to go on this journey with them and their protagonists.
Something amazing happened to Pi. It might have happened as he tells it, but hearers of the story want to know what is believable, not necessarily what really happened. In Big Fish the storyteller is willing to let the listener deal with the challenges that the details provoke. In Life of Pi the storyteller is sad because his audience rejects his story and so he makes up another that could be true but is not nearly as exciting. In the end they don’t believe either version but prefer the one about animals, the analogy, the fable, rather than a tale about people. In Big Fish, Will’s love for his father makes him embrace the story and abandon his disbelief.
Pi never doubts his own story and so is more similar to Edward; Will and the insurance adjustors are the doubters. The unnamed “writer” in Life of Pi concludes with something of the earth and heaven we can all believe in (hint: it is similar to what drove Will to challenge his father) but you will have to see the film to find out what it is.
In both films we are left to ponder: which story is real and which do we have the faith to believe? And at the end of the day, does it make any difference?
What say you?
Sr. Rose Pacatte is the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies. She writes broadly about all things related to today's media. You can find her work at the following places: St. Anthony Messenger and Sister Rose at the Movies. You may also follow her via Facebook.