Always at home with grotesques, Tim Burton unveils a whole gallery of them in his take on Daniel Wallace's Southern-fried novel ''Big Fish,'' as adapted by ''Charlie's Angels'' scribe August (who also wrote ''Go''). The colorful characters include a witchy swamp woman played by Helena Bonham Carter (with whom Burton will have a child in September), a P.T. Barnum-esque circus ringmaster (Danny DeVito), and a sheep-eating giant (the 7-foot-4-inch Matthew McGrory).
They're all tall-tale figments in the mind of a salesman (Albert Finney) dying of cancer in Alabama. His journalist son (Billy Crudup) grudgingly returns home and tries to cope with listening, one last time, to a passel of outlandish stories that have always embarrassed and confused him, since they obscure the facts of his father's life. Says Ewan McGregor, who plays the Finney character's hale, imagined younger self in flashbacks, ''I think it will be quite upsetting for people who've lost their parents and didn't rectify with them.'' (Cast and crew were struck by McGregor's resemblance to Finney in his mid-1960s prime.)
McGregor relished trading in the blue-screen-dominated, fencing-with-empty-air sort of work he's had to do in the ''Star Wars'' films for trickery accomplished mainly with sets and makeup. ''It's not satisfying to be in an empty blue space,'' he says. ''Yes, you can lay in all the effects afterwards, but it's very boring and it's very expensive.''
Finney, meanwhile, had a fine time discovering Burton's affection for actors. ''I didn't know him before this,'' he says. ''He's very solicitous that you feel happy with each shot.'' As for the director's idiosyncratic methods, Finney offers praise with a hint of puzzlement. ''His imagination and his thought processes skip about constantly,'' he says. ''It's hard to, as it were, sit him in a chair and say, 'What do you mean?' He gets to it by being here, there, and everywhere, and he gradually gets to what he wants. I suppose it's by elimination in some way.''
The Killer Moment On his deathbed, a father finally bonds with his estranged son.