Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 19, 2015)
Prior to the late 1990 release of Edward Scissorhands, I was already pretty firmly in the bag for director Tim Burton. After all, I'd absolutely adored two of his three prior efforts: both 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure and 1989's Batman were - and remain - some of my all-time favorite films. I'd also enjoyed Burton's other picture, 1988's Beetlejuice, but not to such a great extent.
As such, it was a given that I'd see Scissorhands but not so definite that I'd enjoy it. The movie seemed to offer a few negatives.
For one, it just looked campy and silly, and it didn't help that Johnny Depp played the lead role. The man held a very different place in popular culture 25 years ago, since he then was known best as a teen-idol who starred on TV's 21 Jump Street; his movie career had not taken off to any significant extent.
So I didn't really relish my viewing of Scissorhands since I thought it'd be something of a mess. In a way, I was right, as the movie does contain significant flaws. However, the end product more than justifies those mistakes, as Scissorhands provided an absolutely beautiful and surprisingly touching experience.
Scissorhands offers an unusual combination of Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast, as artificially-made Edward (Depp) - whose creator wasn't able to finish him - encounters the real world of suburbia and experiences a wide variety of emotions previously unknown to him. As he slowly becomes involved in this environment, he finds himself placed into more and more problematic situations and complications.
Prior to my first viewing of Scissorhands in 1990, I'd expected it would mostly be a wacky romp without any heart, and much of the movie follows along that path. Its greatest weaknesses stem from its radical inconsistency. The film flits through various topics rapidly and alters mood and tone frequently. At times it feels like Burton wants to cram in so much material that he becomes his own worst enemy.
The pacing seriously suffers due to this attempt. I felt like I'd start to get into a certain mood attached to the film when it would suddenly be disrupted by another element. Clearly some of this was intentional – such as when her aggressive boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall) breaks up Kim's (Winona Ryder) ice-dancing - but other times seem less purposeful and can be simply clumsy.
However, as frustrated as I get with Scissorhands, I always forgive Burton the flaws because he's never made a movie with more heart. In fact, only Big Fish shows any signs of the sorts of emotion and spirit found here; while I love his pictures, they don't tend to go for that kind of experience.
In Scissorhands, however, we find the closest thing to a sentimental, heart-tugging tale Burton can offer. In no way do I mean to imply that Burton overtly tries to spring the water-works. In fact, it's probably his earnest lack of pretense that makes the piece fly, since I didn't feel as though he tried to manipulate me. Instead, Scissorhands functions as a compelling and moving film just because of the sheer inspired beauty Burton occasionally brings to the screen.
For all its flaws, there are some scenes in Scissorhands that stand as some of the most lovely and poetic I've seen. When Burton focuses on the romantic aspects of the tale, the movie doesn't just fly - it soars. There's a sad sweetness to those segments that absolutely kills me to this day, and those are the parts you'll remember long after the film ends.
Danny Elfman's gorgeous score strongly helps. Frankly, I've never been a huge fan of Elfman's work, as too much of it sounds like variations on the same theme. His music to Scissorhands bears his trademarks, but it boasts a beauty and grandeur that fail to appear in his other scores. As such, the music becomes a nearly-perfect partner with Burton's visuals as they occasionally create one of the most lovely film experiences I've witnessed.
It helps that the movie's acting is generally quite good. At times Depp seems forced and self-conscious as Edward; there's periodically a quality to his work that suggests he tried too hard. However, he also provides some moments of understated elegance. As with a few of the film's clumsy transitions, I think part of what I see as a problem was intentional, since Depp becomes much more natural and fluid in the role and the movie progresses. Overall it's a strong performance that was a revelation from some TV-bimbo.
While the other cast members are good, I've always maintained a particular fondness for Alan Arkin's turn as Bill Boggs, the patriarch in the picture. He presents a delightful and entertaining air of “suburban dad” detachment that never fails to amuse me. He’s totally oblivious to all the problems around him and never quite gets the point, but not in a mean way. From little things like the way he watches out for his wife while he sneaks a drink or the manner in which he utters "damn them all to hell", Arkin provides a virtually perfect turn.
I wish I could say the same for the rest of Edward Scissorhands, but unfortunately it has far too many flaws to ever flirt with perfection. Frankly, I don't think Tim Burton will ever create a film that isn't messy and problematic to some degree, and guess what? I don't care. I'll take work that's ambitious and inspired but frustrating over something fluid, slick and soulless. In Edward Scissorhands, we find some very awkward moments, but Burton produces enough beauty and magic to make the whole experience worthwhile.