A Fable of Social Understanding

TIM BURTON is a director with a style. You could see it vividly in his first movie, ``Pee-wee's Big Adventure,'' where the hero lived in a world as outlandish and unpredictable as he was. It rang out again in ``Beetlejuice,'' which was a veritable explosion of wacko pop art, and in ``Batman,'' where the brooding shapes and shadows of Gotham made more impression on some viewers than the superhero himself. In each of these movies, forms and colors and unexpected visions - often with a surreal or hyperreal touch - were at least as important as stories and characters.

It makes sense that this proudly offbeat filmmaker would come up with something called ``Edward Scissorhands,'' and that the picture would be about exactly that: a young man named Edward who has pruning shears where fingers ought to be. More surprising is the fact that moviegoers don't feel weirded out by the film's bizarre images and plot twists but are responding warmly to them at the box office. The television success of David Lynch's eccentric ``Twin Peaks'' has not been an isolated phenomenon, it turns out, but a sign of new-found popularity for unpredictable screen fare, at least where the young audience is concerned.

``Edward Scissorhands'' was made to order for that audience. Played by Johnny Depp, whose last movie was John Waters's campy ``Cry-Baby,'' the hero is a wistful teen who doesn't fit in with the other kids - just because he looks funny, and dresses funny, and cuts himself every time his finger-blades come too near his face. The reason he's so different is that he was invented rather than born, and the old scientist who made him - in a castle on a hill outside of town - unfortunately died before the job was quite finished.

Now he lives with the Avon representative who discovered him in that old castle, and suburban life isn't agreeing with him. At first everyone wants to be his friend, especially when he uses his scissorhands to cut hair, groom poodles, and turn backyard shrubbery into exotic sculpture. But there's a lot of pressure to conform in some communities, and Edward can never seem ordinary. Friendship turns sour when he refuses the affections of an infatuated neighbor, and emotions run wild when he gets a crush on the Avon lady's teenage daughter, whose boyfriend is as violent as he is jealous. Now two questions loom over his future. Can he adjust to his new home? And would that be a good idea in the first place?

``Edward Scissorhands'' is sheer fantasy in many ways, but there's a message it wants to send - about the need for understanding people who seem different, and about the way some folks really don't fit into the usual social and personal molds, and shouldn't be expected to. Edward is an artist, although an unconventional one, and the movie is a fable about the respect deserved by people who see life more freshly and creatively than most. The movie is also a work of art itself, if a minor one, with a quirkiness that nicely reflects Edward's own personality.

What keeps the picture from complete success is its tendency to develop a cloying tone and its weakness for stale devices, including a fairy-tale narration by an old woman remembering her part in Edward's adventure. The movie needs more toughness to match Edward's rebellion against an often foolish world.

But it's still a daring and often fascinating work, with good performances by the young members of the cast - especially Winona Ryder as Edward's dream girl - and excellent work by the older generation: Dianne Wiest as the Avon lady, Alan Arkin as her husband, and Vincent Price as the elderly inventor who teaches Edward etiquette from a musty 19th-century tome. Their conviction, coupled with Mr. Burton's zesty sense of style, helps make ``Edward Scissorhands'' an engaging - if not brilliant - fantasy.

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