Film Review: Tim Burton’s ‘Edward Scissorhands’

Director Tim Burton takes a character as wildly unlikely as a boy whose arms end in pruning shears, and makes him the center of a delightful and delicate comic fable.

Edward Scissorhands
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Director Tim Burton’s audacity and originality continue to impress in this post-“Batman” effort in which he takes a character as wildly unlikely as a boy whose arms end in pruning shears, and makes him the center of a delightful and delicate comic fable.

Edward Scissorhands” will clip out a sizable B.O. reward if Fox marketers can convince the public this pic isn’t too strange. Half the fun is seeing how long Burton and screenwriter Caroline Thompson can sustain their outrageous concept, and the answer is, almost long enough.

Conventional melodrama in pic’s last reels shows less imagination than the premise, causing pic to sag a bit, but a final fairy tale flourish more or less restores pic’s charm. Fablelike tale follows the scattered tradition of the lonely and “deformed” outsider who is brought into a community where his differences will be either appreciated or rejected.

Johnny Depp plays Edward, who lives in isolation in a gloomy mansion on the hill until a sunny Avon lady (Dianne Wiest) discovers him and takes him into her suburbia home and mothers him like a crippled bird. The creation of an inventor (Vincent Price) who died and left him unfinished, Edward sports an astonishing pair of hands — five-fingered, footlong blades that render him either lethal, with every gesture a dangerous slash or stab, or extraordinarily skillful, as he proves when he goes to work on the shrubbery.

For the bevy of bored housewives in the pastel-colored nabe, gentle and exotic Edward becomes an instant celeb who amuses them by artistically pruning their hedges, their dogs and their coiffures. With his pale, scarred face, wild raven hair and smudge of purple lipstick, the weirdest sex symbol yet snips away at his creations with mad concentration and grace while the middleaged femmes compete for his attention.

But when he’s wrongly accused in a burglary, his star falls and they turn on him, eventually driving him out of the community. Meanwhile his wistful and impossible attraction to Kim (Winona Ryder), the Avon lady’s teenage daughter, adds another level of tension. What makes “Edward Scissorhands” remarkable is Burton’s brilliance as a visual storyteller. Every element in this seamlessly produced work gels to create an entrancing, slyly comic vision.

Production design, costumes and performances combine to paint a deliciously funny ultrasuburbia stuck stylistically in the early ’60s, where women subsist on voracious gossip and men return from work en masse, sweeping nightly into the culs-de-sac in a parade of headlights. Problem is, once this magically funny world is established, story hasn’t much of anywhere to go. Edward doesn’t have to save the world or even the neighborhood. He has only to maintain his delicate perch in the community, increasingly hard because of his growing attraction to Kim (Ryder), who’s closely guarded by her thuggish boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall).

Commenting on both celebrity and tolerance, Burton has the same people who embraced Edward’s differences as fashionable eventually turn on him. But mostly Burton’s out to create a fairy tale (as pic’s storybook beginning and ending attest), but it’s a tale with edges. Depp, former tv teen idol in his second starring screen role (after “Cry-Baby”), gives a sensitive reading of Edward as a sad, funny clown with a Chaplinesque shuffle.

Acting under whiteface and with elaborate footlong blades rigged to his arms, he’s left to express himself with his eyes and bizarre movements, and does a deft and affecting job. With Ryder kept mostly in the background, Wiest’s mother figure shares the screen with Depp, and she’s a smash. Her outpouring of cheery tenderness is absolutely the right balance for Edward’s ghoulish uniqueness.

Also a hoot is Alan Arkin as her unexcitable husband, who consistently underreacts to Edward’s bizarreness, and Kathy Baker as a sex-starved vixen. Edward’s twitching, insectlike pincers are an inspired effort by designer Stan Winston. Pic’s extraordinary design scheme, for which 44 houses in a Florida suburb were repainted in pastels, is likely to be vying with “Dick Tracy” for honors at Oscar time.

Film Review: Tim Burton’s ‘Edward Scissorhands’

  • Production: 20th Century-Fox. Director Tim Burton; Producer Denise De Novi, Tim Burton; Screenplay Caroline Thompson; Camera Stefan Czapsky; Editor Richard Halsey; Music Danny Elfman; Art Director Bo Welsh
  • Crew: (Color) Available on VHS, DVD. Extract of a review from 1990. Running time: 98 MIN.
  • With: Johnny Depp Winona Ryder Dianne Wiest Anthony Michael Hall Alan Arkin Kathy Baker