Sometimes a film is so ingrained in pop culture that it is easy to take for granted. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) is such a movie. Its themes like “beauty in eccentricity” and “the misunderstood monster” are well-worn in popular cinema (granted monster movies have explored these ideas for centuries, but with far less mainstream success). Does this overexposure to “eccentric” monsters in the 21st century devalue the unique charm of older films of the genre? Burton’s filmography (and by extension Johnny Depp’s) offers a sample size into this phenomenon where startlingly imaginative movies like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas can give way to perfunctory efforts like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, and Alice in Wonderland. Later Burton and Depp collaborations are certainly kooky, but somehow feel as if they are resting on laurels established earlier in their careers. Therefore, does an older film like Edward Scissorhands suffer by association with lesser efforts?
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Caroline Thompson
Producers: Denis De Novi, Tim Burton
Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky
Editor: Richard Halsey, Colleen Halsey
Music: Danny Elfman
Select Cast: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Anthony Michael Hall, Dianne Wiest, Kathy Baker, Alan Arkin, Vincent Price
Runtime: 105 minutes
Country of Origin: USA
U.S. Release Date: December 6, 1990
Edward Scissorhands tells the story of Edward (Johnny Depp), an extremely humanlike android. In fact, his transformation into a man is only marred by his large scissor fingers. Not only are they unsightly, but the blades are dangerously sharp; despite Edward’s gentle nature, these scissor hands cause unintentional pain (to himself and others). The story takes off after Edward’s inventor (Vincent Price) dies and the neighborhood Avon lady, Peg (Dianne Wiest), adopts him into her household. Whereas Edward’s home is a Gothic mansion atop a foreboding hill, Peg’s is a sunny suburbia of pastel-colored houses, immaculate lawns, and passive-aggressive neighbors who spend their time barbequing and gossiping. It is a veneer of the American dream punctured by the arrival of Edward’s sharp angles and incongruous appearance.
Sweet, sweet Edward.
Initially, however, Edward is accepted by the neighbors – especially the lonely housewives led by Joyce (Kathy Baker) whose loneliness gets the better of her; Joyce attempts to seduce Edward and after his pained rejection, she maliciously turns the neighborhood against him. Interspersed with the angry mob of housewives is a love triangle between Edward, Kim (Winona Ryder), and her obnoxious boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall). Kim represents the missing piece of Edward’s humanity and they fall for each other with tragic results.
Burton’s direction of the film is refreshingly simple in how he coordinates the sincere performances with the idiosyncratic designs of the sets, locations, and costumes. Likewise, Johnny Depp delivers an equally restrained – yet haunting – portrayal of an incomplete man. Supporting him in his journey is Wiest, Ryder, Michael Hall, Arkin, and Price; each performance is understated and the movie wouldn’t ring as true without their presence. Every aspect of Edward Scissorhands is crafted with intention so that it feels deceptively easy. It could be easy to underestimate deep care that went into crafting this film. For its efforts, the movie was a commercial and financial success and received numerous award nominations. However, do later Burton and Depp collaborations undermine this legacy?
Overstuffed movies Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, and Alice in Wonderland seem completely unrelated to Edward Scissorhands despite sharing the same DNA. Watching Scissorhands now (Burton and Depp’s first film together) their subtlety is noteworthy, something audiences may have taken for granted in 1990. Consequently, newcomers to this film may be distracted by the simplicity of it all, which ironically is the film’s strength. By itself, Edward Scissorhands is a triumph of German Expressionism and a biting critique of the American suburban landscape; however, within the Burton catalog, it can be overshadowed by more garish projects that may achieve a more dazzling effect on the senses. No director is perfect and efforts to categorize movies as “good” or “bad” are inherently subjective; nonetheless, Edward Scissorhands represents a filmmaker (and performer) at that fleeting nexus in their careers when resources and inspiration gave birth to something special.
by Vincent S. Hannam
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