Tim Burton's new animated movie Frankenweenie is a throwback in a lot of ways, including its cast.
The story about a young boy named Victor Frankenstein who brings his dog back to life is an homage to classic horror flicks from the 1930s. It's a feature-length version of Burton's short film of the same name from 1984. And it reconnects him with Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara, who previously worked with Burton on Mars Attacks and Beetlejuice, respectively.
Both stars were flattered to take on multiple characters in their friend's movie. Short plays Victor's father, the town's authoritarian mayor and one of Victor's classmates. O'Hara does the voices of Victor's mom, the school gym teacher and a creepy little tyke called Weird Girl.
"He didn't just ask us to be in this movie, he asked us to be three characters in a movie that is very, very personal to him," Short says.
While taking on an all-business tone in professing their respect for Burton, the actors couldn't resist some comic back-and-forth while discussing the movie during a press junket in Toronto earlier this week. Most conversations that started seriously ended in the kind of banter that only seasoned comic pros can pull off.
Let's start with what Short liked about the movie: He says he was drawn to the fact that it avoids the Shrek school of family flicks – movies, he says, that are stuffed with moronic pop culture references and fart jokes. "When kids are forced to aim up or understand some things, their brains are forced to actually work in an increasing brain way," Short says.
O'Hara: "Are you a scientist? Just the way you put that. Could you say it in layman's terms, please?"
Short: "I thunk, therefore I am."
He also likes kids' movies "that don't condescend."
O'Hara: "Boogie Nights, for instance."
Short: "Boogie Nights I loved. I brought my four-year-old and said, 'That is what I've been trying to tell you about large penises.'"
It's actually not true to say Frankenweenie is free of pop culture references. It's just that they require an elastic view of what's "pop": Some references are about 80 years old, such as a sight gag that hinges on familiarity with The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935.
In fact, Burton's love of early horror movies is evident in just about every scene. There's a kid who looks like Boris Karloff, a young girl named Elsa Van Helsing and a stormy-night experiment that comes just short of a mad scientist screaming "It's alive! It's alive!"
Whether or not kids understand, it's obvious Burton loved every minute of it, and that passion was clear to his cast.
"He's revisiting something that was an early part of his creative journey, and you don't dare do that unless you're going to fulfill it. You don't go back to the beginning of your journey and just say, 'I'm going to do it because I need a new summer home,' " Short says.
O'Hara: "Actually, a lot of other people do that."
Short: "Oh, I'll do that."
O'Hara: "Thank God it's Tim, someone doing it with some taste."
And … scene.