*** (A must-see)

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Burton and Caroline Thompson

With Johnny Depp, Dianne Wiest, Winona Ryder, Alan Arkin, Kathy Baker, Vincent Price, and Anthony Michael Hall.

Although nostalgia for childhood, particularly boyhood, underpins many a Hollywood extravaganza, that longing is not usually loosed with any emotional restraint. Perhaps that is why so many films of the last two or three years have lacked structure or grace. And from a profit-making point of view, the stakes must be raised again and again to compete against other, similar ventures: episodes of unlimited violence and carefully delimited sex (nothing too emotional, please) are piled one on top of another in a bald attempt to re-create the vagaries of the early adolescent mind. In a youth-crazed culture, these ungainly accumulations appeal not just to a market of teenaged ticket buyers but also to those who wish to purchase a second youth, one unencumbered by the implacable maturity of actual experience.

Tim Burton has achieved popular and critical success by dealing with these issues overtly. From the animated short Vincent, which he made at Disney when he was only 23 (and which is still his most satisfying work), Burton has pursued the kind of fantasies likely to come from the lonely, alienated, and misshapen mind of a hurt, immature outcast teen.

The title of his first feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, pretty much speaks for itself. Beetlejuice, meanwhile, posited a parallel world of juvenile outsiders, most obviously the title poltergeist and Winona Ryder’s almost terminally depressed girl, but also the two ghosts played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin. Though nominally adults, they are chagrined to find themselves excluded from adult company, forced to hide out in an attic, play dress up, and–the ultimate humiliation–suffer continually the condescension of the grown-ups who run their household. The commercially phenomenal Batman, though the least eloquent of Burton’s works and to my mind a cumbersome and shrill failure, at least on the periphery held to his preoccupations, particularly in its otherwise drama-distorting concentration on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, another adult victim of arrested development who spends his time dressing up and playing deadly, dignity-deflating, childish pranks.

With Edward Scissorhands, Burton has turned his energizing sympathy for the peculiar feelings of adolescence into a modern satirical fairy tale. Burton does not go in new directions, but this time his approach has been pushed to its limits–particularly his knack, born of his animation skills, for sucking the viewer into a world of loony make-believe with impossible physics and unlikely psychology.

As in the past, Burton opens the film with overhead pans and tracks of a terrain of buildings–an abandoned mansion and a suburban development–that are deliberately fake-looking. Everything about these houses, from their scale to their plastic texture, makes them look like models. However, as he did in Beetlejuice, Burton abruptly emerges into a kind of reality: the tiny models turn out to be full-scale and populated by humans, a virtuoso assertion that what follows is a manufactured “reality,” the product of Burton’s own mind, and that he’s made no pretense of detachment or objectivity.

As if such a disclaimer of normality were needed. Edward Scissorhands, a little mechanical boy with scissors instead of fingers, enters the quotidian world of suburban tract houses and shopping malls when he’s discovered one day by Avon lady Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest). She knocks on the door of the local haunted mansion and discovers not spooks but the lonely and mute Edward hiding in the shadows, abandoned since the day the Inventor (Vincent Price) dropped dead before he could finish him.

In a performance of calculated eccentricity, Wiest plays Peg as an insane combination of the sangfroid and housekeeping abilities of every housewife from every 50s sitcom–Donna Reed after too many acid trips. She totes Edward back to her house and gamely tries to integrate him into the household. Edward puts up with mild teasing from her 12-year-old son and casual indifference from husband Bill (Alan Arkin, satirizing the conventions of TV dad-dom), but is immediately smitten with beautiful young Kim (Winona Ryder). Edward cannot speak his love–he cannot speak anything at all, really–and eventually his outcast status, deep affection, and inarticulateness combine to form the plot’s engine.

Edward’s initial appearance causes suspicion among the caricatured housewives who form a sort of running geek chorus in the movie. But led by the libidinous curiosity of the local man-eater, Joyce Monroe (Kathy Baker), they finally come around. Edward’s social acceptance is eased when he displays unusual skill with his mechanical extremities, first trimming hedges and bushes into animal shapes, then turning his trimming skills on the local canine population, and finally winning massive approval when he turns out to be the world’s most talented haircutter.

Burton strings out these plot points in the most explicit, even repetitious, way. Compared to the film’s snappy and gruesomely expressive visual scheme, its plot drags. More tension is produced, in fact, by the production design (by Bo Welch) than by the dramatic play. Edward comes from an airy and mostly black-and-white world; the ruined mansion and its ramshackle grounds are at first only spooky, then become embracing and comforting. The town’s houses, on the other hand, look like they were set up by a prison warden. With their tiny windows and sickeningly bright pastel paint jobs, they look like strange hybrids, half cottages, half bunkers. The pinks, blues, and greens have a literally repulsive effect, like painterly barbed wire.

Throughout the action Edward is quiet, polite, and whimpering, so it is inevitable that everyone turns on him. That process begins when Edward, looking into a storefront at the local mall that might serve as a salon for him, is terrified by Joyce Monroe’s attempted seduction. Fleeing from her in fear, he arouses her feminine rage, and she spreads the story that she fended off his attacks. Edward has also been having trouble with Kim’s boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), a high school lothario whose instinctive jealousy of Edward has led him to frame the poor kid in a phony burglary attempt. Throw in Edward’s rescue of the youngest Boggs kid, which is mistaken as an assault, and Edward soon becomes a pariah, rushing back to the safety of the mansion to live out his days in isolation.

The entire plot depends on a series of misinterpretations that could have been cleared up several times, particularly by Kim. However, for unexplained reasons, she becomes conveniently discombobulated, with the result that the complications are never sorted out. Purely as a story, Edward Scissorhands never makes much sense.

But this is one of those movies that bypasses the usual structural niceties, coming as it does straight from the head of a talented, if off-kilter, creator. The classic example of this type of work is the film Invaders From Mars, another tale of juvenile jeopardy, directed by the famous production designer William Cameron Menzies. In fact, a police station in Edward is a dead ringer for the one in Invaders, and both serve the same purpose: highlighting the chasm between a child’s personal needs and the inadequacy of institutional response.

Throughout the movie are scenes of such visual eloquence that they far outweigh the narrative failures. Edward, for example, at two key moments works at ice sculpture so furiously that the shavings turn into snow, blanketing the town with what amounts to a shivery benediction, first of Edward’s happiness, later of his sadness. Because of these images of loneliness and frenetic creativity–Edward is ceaseless in his snipping–the film creates a purely visual, frankly melodramatic dynamic that builds to an irresistibly sad climax. Even as the formal ingenuity creates a detached appreciation, the images still grab you emotionally.

However, although Edward may beg to be read as a study in artistic alienation, it is finally the sexual subtext that emerges with distressing clarity. Though Ryder’s Kim is the purported locus of Edward’s attention, it is Wiest’s motherly Peg who takes and keeps center stage for most of the film. From the very first she takes charge of Edward, covering his semimetallic bodyware with more conventional clothing and trying to cover up his scarred, lily-white skin with application after application of cosmetics. Over and over Peg assures Edward that he does not have to worry about pleasing her, that all he has to do is be himself and he will have a home with her.

Kim is altogether more troubling, a woman on the eve of sexual activity, just as Peg appears to be past it (her relationship with Arkin’s understated Bill is deliberately devoid of romantic streams; indeed, all they talk about is Edward). Edward’s dawning attraction to Kim brings nothing but trouble, particularly in the person of evil Jim. Given Jim’s loquacity, his easy sociability, his open sexuality, and his brutal self-interest, it is easy to see him as a double for Edward, what the quiet loner would be like if he gave in to his “base” feelings.

The two most sexual characters, Joyce and Jim, are the cause of all Edward’s problems. Throw in his chaste love for Kim and his dependence on asexual Peg, and Edward slowly emerges as less an elegiac tribute to the lonely artist than a panicky retreat from sexual maturity. Not only is Edward a machine that can never grow older, the substitution of scissors for hands is both a symbol for arrested physical development and an obstruction to the most common means of adolescent gratification. Art–Edward’s cutting skill–is preferable, or at least less complicated, than sex.

Unfortunately, Burton seems to share Edward’s view of sex as something distorted and threatening, so he does not so much showcase Edward’s dilemma–how to live without growing–as share it. Burton is content to retreat with Edward to his lonely mansion and identify his own art with that of his animated machinery. This contradictory conflation is complex. Burton obviously is too accomplished a filmmaker to fall unwitting victim to such solipsism, so it may be that he has not found the expositional skills that would contrast his own concerns with those of his hero. This is one of the problems when a filmmaker holds up a mirror to himself; his gaze tends to be distracted by his concerns over his appearance. Edward Scissorhands is a flashy and entertaining apologia from an artist who has not accumulated enough work to justify such self-concern. Once he throws a little dirt into his enchanting gizmos, he may discover that they work better.