Film Review: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

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scissorhands2Tim Burton’s films have always held the kind of decoration you’d expect on a Christmas tree, and bar The Nightmare Before Christmas, this is probably his most Christmassy effort.

Having been denied the ultimate gift of normal hands due to the untimely death of his elderly inventor (played by the incomparably weird Vincent Price), Edward (Johnny Depp) is resigned to having scissors for hands forever more. A monster, he lives alone for the ensuing years. However, when kind-hearted neighbourhood saleswoman Peg Boggs (Dianne West) comes knocking at the decrepit old mansion atop the hill, he experiences his first real taste of charity. In Peg’s eyes, the lonely Edward needs a home.

A bittersweet tale that announced Burton’s capacity for combining whimsy with moral profundity, Edward Scissorhands may have been an old story but it was delivered with such fresh eccentricity that it’s easy to forgive any saccharine that creeps in at the film’s conclusion. With a chocolate box-neat neighbourhood and characters that are at once artificial yet utterly familiar, the atmosphere is mythic yet thoroughly domestic. Furthermore, the onset of Christmas seems a fitting setting for this meditation on the struggles of being an outcast.

An elegant mix of the Elephant Man, Jesus and Frankenstein, Edward’s is a complex set of circumstances. Face value insists that Edward is a potential hairdressing and topiary sensation, performing tricks for the masses. However, that means his novelty is defined by how he is different, a fact that makes him an easy target both for exploitation and as a potential scapegoat. edward-scissorhands-original

The heightened emotions of the holiday season here serve brilliantly to emphasise the very best and worst of Christmas. This is particularly evident in the film’s conclusion where, as the Boggs family prepares the house for that one day in December, Edward’s fate is sealed.

Hand in hand with Christmas comes the process of giving and receiving, and repaying generosity with gratitude. With the clueless Edward granted the benefit of the doubt by the Boggs family, and made to feel part of a family for the Christmas season, he is exposed to some of the best examples of humanity and empathy. However, he is also challenged to establish a moral code for himself while observing the wider, more alien world around him. Here, the sinister concepts of gluttony and prejudice become starkly recognisable, most scarily highlighted by the neighbourhood’s quick transition from fascination to condemnation.

It is a relief then that Burton’s fairytale finishes on a heartening note. Edward’s glowing opinion of Peg’s daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) makes its impression on the one person that matters, and his parting gift is the simple one of a white Christmas, courtesy of the refuse from his elaborate ice sculptures. Corny as it may be, it’s a nice message to end on that even the simplest of gestures can be the most lasting, and Christmas can bring about the most unexpected of blessings.

Even if it’s an absolute mystery where Edward gets the ice from.

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