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Edward Scissorhands, story by Caroline Thompson and Tim Burton, written by Caroline Thompson, directed by Tim Burton, 1991, 100 min.

Tim Burton is a fabulously talented director, with a keen eye for the visuals that will astonish us, that will unsettle us, that will tweak our sense of irony. Unfortunately, like many other directors, he does not have as astute a vision when it comes to other elements that make up a movie. Edward Scissorhands has the potential to be one of the best movies in the business, but eye candy does not last long in the mind and there's very little substance to ponder later on. I was especially disappointed with the conclusion of the film, which provided almost nothing in the way of pay-off for all the build-up previous to it. That disappointment is only deepened by looking back at all the wonderful moments earlier in the film. I'm curious to see what project Burton is going to work on next; after the disappointment of Mars Attacks! , he seems to be trying to pick his next movie with a little more care. But I shudder at the thought of Burton directing a Superman movie (the Internet rumour mills are full of his on-again off-again affair with this project) -- Edward Scissorhands is the perfect Burton hero in more ways than one. And Edward is the perfect canvas for the typical Burton twistedness.

Weirdly, Edward Scissorhands was in the comedy section at my local video store. And for the first half of the film, I was in total agreement with that label. The Avon Lady gets rejected at every door in her pastel-coloured suburb, and so goes to knock at the door of the gothic mansion at the top of a hill -- the visual juxtaposition is astonishing and witty. She meets a shy adolescent named Edward, who has only scissors for hands, and brings him down into the world of suburbia. What follows is gentle fun poked at the life of a typical neighbourhood -- bored wives, distant husbands, materialism, trendiness... all of it. Edward seems to fit in almost immediately, giving everyone's shrubbery a new look (and some of the new topiary are indeed nifty), everyone's dog a new look, all the women's hair a new look, and so on. But Edward, always the naive outsider, gets manipulated into an attempted theft, and an attempted seduction, and thereafter the neighbourhood turns against him, viciously. From here on in, the movie loses all of its charm, and certainly all of its wit. Burton could have avoided saccharinity in some other way, and he certainly could have spend some more time rewriting the ending.

But it is also true that Edward Scissorhands was never interested in real humans anyway. The stereotype of the neighbours simply does a flip-flop, from gullible and charming to vicious and mob-like. All of the background characters were cardboard cutouts in the first place. Vincent Price does what he can with his role as the Inventor, and all of those flashbacks are competently handled. The "evil boyfriend" and the "dream girl" are both what could be expected, as is the "little brother". The main trio of characters are what raised my expectations for the movie to such a high pitch. Johnny Depp gives a brave performance as the title character and he manages to inform some of the best sequences in the movie with delight and wonder with only the simplest expressions. Edward's longings are clearly portrayed, as is his eagerness to be in on a joke or two (I'm thinking of show and tell). Depp manipulates his mechanical appendages in a believable manner, which must not have been too easy. Dianne Wiest plays the role of the Avon Lady with a delicate mix of lunacy and altruism, and many of the best instances of irony in Edward Scissorhands are based in her character. Who would expect a suburbanite to be so compassionate (I'm phrasing that how Burton seems to intend, by the way)? However, my favourite character was the father of the family, in an astounding performance by Alan Arkin. At first, he seems totally lacking in any kind of human quality, totally disconnected from his wife and from any kind of compassion for Edward. But his lines of dialogue become more and more humorous, and his words become somewhat at odds with his actions, as we realize that he is indeed soft-hearted. He drives off to work at the same time of day as all the other fathers, and he cooks up the same kind of barbecue. But a real person lurks somewhere behind the trappings of suburbia....

Interestingly, there seem to be a few thematic links between Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas (also known as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas even though it was directed by Henry Selick). Both films resolve their crises by letting their main character separate himself from "normal" society, which, to me, seems to be a cowardly ending. Edward is capable of change, is he not? Capable of all those human emotions that the suburbanites have refused to see in him? Perhaps he is meant to be better off without the company of others, if they are indeed so despicable. And that is where my series of nasty comments about suburbanites is based -- Burton seems to be implying that, while Edward is capable of change, the others are not and do not deserve his presence among them. We've come a long way from the days of Capra, and perhaps a bit too far.


Last modified: November 22, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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