In his early films, director Tim Burton helped drag sick humor and glam nihilism into the mainstream. But his latest effort, adapted from Daniel Wallace’s novel, is an ode to white picket fences, hot apple pie, and old-fashioned storytelling. As in Sleepy Hollow, his drastic revision of Ichabod Crane’s adventures, the story unfolds against a historical backdrop; Big Fish is about the modern age sweeping away traditional storytelling. Yet Burton’s jaundiced sensibility slips through, coloring the film’s earnest facade and central character, a traveling salesman and rambunctious storyteller named Edward Bloom.

Bloom claims that he once saw his own death foretold by looking into a witch’s magic eye, that he worked for a circus whose ringmaster was a werewolf, and that he confronted and befriended a terrifying giant. The tall tales are taken from Wallace’s episodic book, but screenwriter John August has strung them together with a present-day narrative: now elderly and terminally ill, Bloom (a hammy Albert Finney) gets a visit from his estranged son, Will (Billy Crudup), who wants the truth from his father after years of outlandish stories. The tales appear as flashbacks, with Ewan McGregor playing the young Bloom.

As the movie opens, old man Bloom is stealing the show at Will’s wedding dinner with one of his whoppers, which enrages his son; three years pass before they’re reunited at Bloom’s bedside. Will is his father’s opposite, a dull, dignified AP reporter, and Crudup, with his whine and soft stare, plays him like a castrated Oedipus, so thoroughly upstaged by his dad that even his anger looks puny. Burton shows the rivalry between father and son but not the rancor, which seems to fit with the film’s calm lyricism. But the father-son conflict is meant as the dramatic crux, and a forceful actor would have given it some much-needed bite.

The film has less edge than past Burton classics, but its storytelling is sharp. When Bloom recalls his boyhood confrontation with the old witch (Helena Bonham Carter under wads of makeup) in his Alabama hometown, the scene starts right outside her door. The rhythm is so smooth that when Burton plays up his taste for the fantastic, it’s never belabored. In one of his boldest strokes he casts real-life giant Matthew McGrory as Karl, the giant encountered by Bloom. When Bloom first sees the love of his life (Alison Lohman) at the circus, time literally stands still: Burton freezes the image, and McGregor crosses toward the young woman, brushing aside the tossed popcorn that still hangs in the air. Burton’s movies have always toyed with the idea that seeing is believing. Big Fish is one extravagance after the next, but it always seems spontaneous.

To Will, the old man’s stories are lies, and he’s slow to grasp that their emotional texture is true even if the facts don’t stick. In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin argued that print journalism was killing off traditional storytelling. Stories like Bloom’s, passed along over generations, spoke of “the most extraordinary things, marvelous things,” but the listener was still free to interpret them as he chose. As storytelling fades and “the news of the globe” takes over, “no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation.”

Big Fish is so sweetly seductive that when Burton cuts through the nostalgia it’s jarring. Near the end of the story Will tracks down Jenny (beautifully played by Bonham Carter), a woman whose name runs through his father’s stories, and tries to get the truth from her. She languidly admits to having once had an affair with Bloom when they were younger, though she sums it up as “living in a fairy tale….I was make-believe and his other life, you, were real.” Her casting as both this character and the witch leads to a mind-boggling revelation: Jenny claims she grew into the witch in Bloom’s imagination because he saw every woman (save his wife) as one and the same, different faces of the same being.

Burton suggests that we all reduce ourselves and others to such stock characters: Bloom is the unrivaled hero of his stories but a phony to his son. The jim crow south of the 1940s and ’50s has never seemed so idyllic, because that’s the way Bloom chooses to remember it. But beneath all the storytelling gloss there’s the pull of death; his stories may bound with the joy of being alive, but he can’t square them with the one act that defines us as mortals. When he and his young friends meet the witch, each of the boys learns of his own eventual demise (one falls off a ladder, another dies of a coronary). Bloom sees his death too, but he doesn’t share it with Will, and Burton doesn’t share it with us. His cutting away reminds us that Bloom is no conscious liar; he’s just biased about what truth he tells.