(1985) Directed by Tim Burton; Written by Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens and Michael Varhol; Starring: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger and Judd Omen; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“I enjoy the immediacy of the live action, and again when you’re able to kind of cross the barriers of animation and live action, it’s even more fun… you’re dealing with the kind of characters that are so extreme but real at the same time...” – Tim Burton (excerpt from DVD commentary)
“There’s a lot of things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.” – Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens)
My Twitter followers have voted for my first movie to cover for Road Trip Month, and who am I to disagree? Pee-wee’s Big Adventure possesses many of the qualities common to many road trip movies. Its hero begins with a quest, there are trials to be endured, and hopefully he’s learned something about himself in the process. Although Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) is perhaps the unlikeliest of heroes, he rises to the challenge in the series of quixotic adventures depicted in the film.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure not only helped catapult the career of Reubens to another level, but established its director and composer as forces to be reckoned with. Former Disney animator Tim Burton made his feature film debut, displaying many touches that would become signature moments in his projects to follow. His cartoon sensibilities and frenetic style complemented Pee-Wee Herman’s bizarre, childlike antics.* Danny Elfman dabbled in soundtracks before, composing music for his brother Richard’s cult movie Forbidden Zone, but it was Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that introduced his scoring talents to a mainstream audience.
* In his DVD commentary, Reubens stated he encountered difficulty finding a director suitable for his first film project. After learning about Burton through a friend at a party, Reubens screened the short film Frankenweenie, and realized he’d found a perfect match.
From the first notes in the opening credits to the opening dream sequence, the film’s breezy tone is established. We’re immersed into Pee-wee’s very specific, pleasantly bizarre world. How he functions on a daily basis, or what he does for a living is anyone’s guess (Maybe he received a substantial inheritance, okay? Let’s move on?). He prepares breakfast through a needlessly complicated Rube Goldberg-inspired creation, plays with his toys and keeps his beloved bike under lock and key. His next door neighbor Francis (Mark Holton) is determined to get his hands on Pee-wee’s bike, by hook or by crook. When the bike disappears on a routine (for Pee-wee, anyway) trip to a gag store, the search is on. He hitchhikes his way to San Antonio, Texas to retrieve it, and encounters an escaped convict, a waitress and her jealous boyfriend,* a biker gang, and a host of other assorted characters.
* Fun fact: According to Burton, he originally wanted to get Andre the Giant to play Simone’s (Diane Salinger) gargantuan boyfriend Andy, but Andre declined.
Describing the numerous gags and visual scenes in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure wouldn’t do it any justice. It’s better experienced than catalogued. There are so many treats within, including stop motion animation sequences, a cameo by fellow Grounding Theater alum Cassandra Peterson (aka: Elvira) as a biker chick, as well as appearances by future Pee-wee’s Playhouse co-stars John Paragon and Lynne Marie Stewart (who would appear as Jambi the Genie and Miss Yvonne, respectively). There’s also a climactic chase through the Warner Brothers backlot at Burbank Studios, */** featuring a tour through several sound stages and an impossible mix of productions (who knew Toho worked in Burbank?). Another highlight is the movie within a movie, a James Bond-style parody starring James Brolin as Pee-Wee.
* Fun fact about this reviewer: In a case of life imitating art, I was fortunate enough to attend a special screening in the mid-‘80s at Burbank Studios, the same location where the film’s climax takes place
** Fun fact: Watch for a bit of career foreshadowing for Burton, with a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo of the original TV Batmobile at the beginning of the Warner Brothers Studio sequence.
I can’t overstate how important Danny Elfman’s playful score works to set the tone of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Elfman (still with his band Oingo Boingo at the time), wore his musical influences on his sleeve for the film’s music, with liberal doses of Nino Rota, shades of Bernard Herrmann (in the Hitchcock-flavored sequence where Pee-wee loses his bike), or during the climactic chase scene, where there’s a brief shout out to The Wizard of Oz (Miss Gulch on her bicycle). Considering how ubiquitous Elfman’s film scores have become, it’s easy to dismiss how fresh his music seemed at the time. Whether or not you think he’s operating on cruise control these days, it’s hard to dismiss the energy that he injected into this movie.
Love him or hate him (I’m obviously in the first camp. If you’re in the second camp, we can’t be friends), no other film has exploited Paul Reubens’ unique character Pee-wee Herman as well. It’s the one role that he’ll be forever associated with, for good or ill. But oh what a film it is, bursting with enough off-kilter characters, absurd situations and quotable lines for a dozen lesser comedies. Pee-wee and the film capture a brief moment in time before puberty sets in, throwing everything out of balance. There’s something fundamentally innocent and pure about the character, which Burton’s film exploits perfectly. Pee-wee isn’t like everyone else, but that’s okay, because he finds his niche in an accepting world. Contrast this conceit with the misguided sequel, Big Top Pee-wee, where he’s regarded as a freak. Movie audiences would have to wait nearly 30 years (albeit on the small screen) for another Pee-wee Herman movie with some (but not all) of the first film’s plucky spirit. After all these years, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure remains a favorite. Even if I’m in a crummy mood, it never fails to pick me up. My advice: grab a cold one (alcoholic or non-alcoholic is up to you), sit back and regress for 90 minutes of pure glee. And don’t forget to “Be sure and tell ‘em Large Marge sent ya.”