Within the past half-decade, the words “Tim Burton” have mostly inspired dread, his films now promising numbed buns and a peculiar awareness of how cruel time can be.” It all began with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, which had the bad luck of making a billion dollars and set Burton on a path towards professional complacency. Not only did the aggressively bland, visually incoherent film inspire a wave of imitators to re-render beloved fairy tales in heavily computer-generated battlegrounds, but it seemingly sapped its director of his creative spark. Dark Shadows was a brick in 2012 (though a lucrative brick), and then Frankenweenie felt, aptly enough, like an unnatural resurrection of his earlier work. Big Eyes was supposed to be a return to form for the director in 2014, but it turned out to be a pretty cut-and-dried biopic with a marked lack of chemistry between its two leads, Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams.
The memory drifts farther away with every new feature, but there was a time when news of a Tim Burton film was cause for excitement. When a young Burton was getting his start in the mid-’80s with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman, he arrived as a fresh and eccentric voice in American cinema, combining a sound art-school background with a passion for all things wonderfully weird. He’d go on to produce some of his finest work in the years that followed, from The Nightmare Before Christmas — which Burton did not technically direct, only produce, design, and envision — to the inspired biopic Ed Wood, to Danny DeVito’s finest hour Batman Returns. But right in the sweet spot, after Burton’s period of figuring out what worked and what didn’t, before he started cranking out hits, at the precise moment when he pivoted from a promising young talent to a full-fledged artist, came a pallid, unnatural freak named Edward Scissorhands.
That was 25 years ago. Revisiting Tim Burton’s magnum opus is like hopping into a time machine, transporting viewers back to the director’s heyday. Edward Scissorhands is a fully-formed composition of alienation and loneliness, at once adolescent in its emotional vulnerability and mature in how clear-eyed it is about that same quality. Like Ed Wood, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, like all of Burton’s best work, Edward Scissorhands concerns a melancholic outsider stunted by the feeling that he doesn’t belong, that there must be something more for him than this. The formal aspects of the picture — set design, music, Burton’s manipulation of color — all serve to reinforce this distance between the self and everyone else. The film hails from a period during which Burton knew enough to tell stories that’d complement his unique aesthetic, rather than underscore how hollow it can be. Edward Scissorhands is a Tim Burton movie, through and through, not a Burtonized off-brand product.
In a career full to bursting with colorful personae, Edward Scissorhands may be Johnny Depp’s most indelible creation. With a muss of black hair set against zombified, daintily-scarred skin, the gawky goth Frankenstein looks like a cross between The Cure’s Robert Smith and Pinhead from Hellraiser. He’s a monster in the most basic terms, but Burton makes it abundantly clear that within his leather-covered chest beats a gentle heart. His razor-edged hands have the capacity for terrible violence, and when he’s not careful, he tends to hurt those he loves the most without even intending to. Burton also sees the nobility of this awkward loner, how he can make use of his odd talents for delicate works of complex beauty, or maybe just snappy haircuts. It’s not just that Edward hails from the outskirts of town, perpetually distanced from the shiny happy people below, his yearning to belong goes bone deep. After being taken in by the warm, open-minded Boggs family (led by Dianne Wiest as the chipper Avon representative who first discovers Edward), Edward is so nakedly eager to please and earn his surrogate family’s acceptance that he practically radiates delight when he realizes his untapped acumen for topiary sculpting. The deeply moving scene that finds Edward and Winona Ryder’s quick-witted Kim Boggs in a moment of repose under falling snow captures both the grace and pain of Edward’s tragic character; he wants to extend affection to her, and can only slash her hand.
The folks at Hot Topic would ultimately cannibalize the Burton aesthetic to the point where it’s now predominantly associated with people you try to stay away from at malls, but in this film, it mimics and amplifies Edward’s core sense of isolation. Unafraid to show off that CalArts education, Burton drew from German Expressionist greats like F.W. Murnau (his Nosferatu left fingerprints all over the design for Edward) and Robert Wiene (Cesare, the homicidal sleepwalker from Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has the same sunken-in, dark-ringed eyes as Edward) for an eerie and distorting slant on reality. The castle in which Edward sulks is a marvel of Gothic architecture, all slanted ceilings and sharp angles, and it’s made even better when contrasted with the primary colors of the artificially sweetened town. The invitingly creepy feel of Edward’s territory subtly communicates the torment raging inside him, as well. This is home for Edward, but the off-putting visual design serves as a reminder that it’s also been the site of a great deal of pain for him, as well.
These two components, the gnawing loneliness at the center of the film and the eldritch ambience that envelops it like a spider’s web, work in perfect tandem to form a statement on the tribulations of social pariah-hood. Edward himself could’ve been dreamt up by a disaffected teen who’d just been assigned Mary Shelley in AP English, but Burton’s artistic sensibility had the refinement of skills honed for years. There’s a satisfying harmony between the form and function in Edward Scissorhands conspicuously absent from Alice in Wonderland and the like. When the only story at hand is “girl fights vaguely defined dictatorial force,” all of the quirks native to Burtonism only function as distracting window dressing.
The blockbuster-industrial complex hasn’t fully sucked the soul from Burton’s work — I, for one, am confident he has another great film or two rattling around inside him like a bat in a cave — but it’s not where he belongs, at least not like this. Burton’s capable of coexisting comfortably with the demands of franchise work, we learned that much during his Batman years, but he’s got to do it his way. Burton’s Gotham City was a rain-slick, pitch black fusion of art deco and gothic flourishes, Batman its fringe protector. Bruce Wayne, it turned out, was another classically Burtonian figure in his fundamental removal from his perceived mainstream, and Gotham was his black hive of self-imposed solitude.
A quarter of a century’s a long time, and so of course Burton’s work would change in the many years separating Edward Scissorhands‘ release from the now. Nobody’s demanding he make it 1990 again through science or magic, only that he take stock of his strengths, and what sorts of projects suit his interests. The adage is so maddeningly platitudinal that saying it all feels like a cop-out, but he needs only to be himself. When Burton does Burton, the dark magicks crackle. He’s now taken to telling other people’s stories, but Edward Scissorhands was the purest essence of his misunderstood-teenager’s spirit that’s ever been.