Edward (Johnny Depp), the hero of Tim Burton’s whimsical and haunting modern fairy tale Edward Scissorhands, is a shy, spectral boy with a beautiful powder-white face, a shock of black hair, and, where each of his hands should be, a complicated array of two-foot-long scissor blades — one set of shears for each ”finger” — that seem both organic and mechanical. He’s joined to those treacherous steel appendages (they really are his hands), but they’re also the one part of him that isn’t quite human.

Edward, who is wrapped from head to toe in shiny, spiked leather, has a bit of a punk look to him; he’s like an angelic version of Sid Vicious. At the same time, he couldn’t be less threatening. He almost never says anything, and when he does, the voice that comes out is shockingly soft and delicate, full of a child’s serene wonder. Edward’s true eloquence can be found in his eyes. They’re black-rimmed and wounded, full of ghostly awareness, and the more you look into them the more you could swear he was about to cry.

The character of Edward — a boy too sensitive for this world — sounds like the most maudlin idea for a fairy-tale hero anyone could have imagined. And he would have been, were it not for those thresher hands of his. Edward takes great care to keep them politely folded, but they’re unwieldy, and his face is covered with self-inflicted scars. After a while, you realize it’s no coincidence that this strange and sorrowful boy, this Pinocchio with Freddy Krueger’s hands, has grown up with such a saintly demeanor. If he allowed himself the tiniest bit of aggression, he might maim or even kill somebody. He’s probably the most justifiably oversensitive teen in history. At the same time, his energy is released in an otherworldly talent. Using his hands like a barber’s shears (or, more accurately, 10 of them), he can, within minutes, sculpt lawn hedges or ice into any shape that strikes him. The scenes in which Edward creates his sculptures have a deranged grandeur, like something out of Dr. Seuss.

In his first two films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Tim Burton proved a brilliant prankster with a streak of pure, pop surrealism. But then, in Batman, he revealed something darker and more melodramatic. The film had such a majestic visual sweep that its story flaws seemed almost irrelevant; Burton’s luscious comic-strip images were the story. Now, coming off Batman‘s incredible success, he has made his most heartfelt film yet.

Edward Scissorhands still has remnants of Burton’s fluky, over-the-edge-of-camp wit. The movie is set in a color-coordinated pastel suburbia that’s like a loving assemblage of ’60s kitsch. Only here, the synthetic bric-a-brac isn’t just amusing clutter. It has become a kind of polyester dreamscape, as mythical a setting for Burton as the ’50s-flavored small towns of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are for David Lynch.

Edward lives in an old gray horror-movie castle that looms up absurdly over the tract houses. It’s there that he was created by the Inventor (Vincent Price), a kindly Gepetto figure who neglected to give him human hands. When the local Avon Lady (Dianne Wiest) pays a visit there and finds Edward sitting alone, she takes him back and makes him a part of her family. The movie turns into a fish-out-of-water comedy, like Splash or E.T., with Edward the humanoid visitor struggling to fit into his new world. Most of the neighbors are amusingly nonchalant about having Edward in their midst. He begins to decorate the neighborhood with his hedge sculptures, and he proves a wizardly hairdresser, too. For the local sexpot (Kathy Baker), getting her hair molded by Edward’s chattering scissors is the most erotic experience of her life.

Edward Scissorhands isn’t quite the pop classic it keeps promising to be. It shares the narrative weaknesses of Burton’s other films, and now that he’s trying to create a rounded, emotional story, the thinness of the script hurts more than before. When Edward falls in love with Wiest’s cheerleader daughter (Winona Ryder) and comes into conflict with her thuggish jock boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall), the fairy-tale structure clearly points to Edward’s finally confronting the latent violence in his hands. And yet the film doesn’t turn dark enough. Burton, who may have been afraid of making the movie too disturbing for kids, pulls back. The ending, too, doesn’t quite soar — and that’s what it absolutely needs to do.

Yet I loved the film simply for the character of Edward, who is Burton’s purest achievement as a director so far. As an image, a presence, he’s at once poetic and heartbreaking, and the innocent aggression implicit in his hands creates undercurrents of rich, subversive comedy. Depp may not be doing that much acting beneath his neo-Kabuki makeup, but what he does is tremulous and affecting. And Danny Elfman’s lovely, storybook score highlights the pop romanticism of Burton’s conception. The romanticism has a personal dimension — for Edward is, of course, Burton’s surreal portrait of himself as an artist: a wounded child converting his private darkness into outlandish pop visions. Like Edward, he finds the light. A-

Edward Scissorhands
  • Movie
  • 100 minutes