Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Film #22: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Despite some of my best friends in high school making constant reference to the cult film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I had never actually seen the movie until a week ago. It was… pretty much exactly the way I expected it to be. To be honest, I don’t know how anyone could watch this movie for the first time without the whole thing seeming familiar. Pee-wee Herman, the indelible man-child played (for a decade straight) by Paul Reubens, is so intractably entwined in American popular culture that it’s impossible not to know his antics. What I wasn’t aware of, however, is that this movie was the first time Pee-wee hit the big or small screen (I just assumed that his television show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” had preceded the film); nor was I fully aware that this was the very first feature-length film directed by Tim Burton. Knowing these things puts the film in an interesting historical context. Oh yeah, and it’s a pretty enjoyable watch in and of itself.

The story is simple: Pee-wee loves his bike. Pee-wee’s bike gets stolen. A psychic tells Pee-wee his stolen bike is in the basement of the Alamo. Pee-wee sets out to get it. During his trip, Pee-wee encounters all sorts of people: Escaped convicts, forlorn waitresses, angry bikers, ghost truckers, even the glam rock band Twisted Sister. Pee-wee is such an idiosyncratic character and I was interested in seeing how the people around him would react to his behavior. For the most part, the world he inhabits is the same as ours; there’s nothing that’s obviously different about it, nothing that would suggest that Pee-wee’s antics are the norm (except for his equally man-chidlish arch rival Francis). Yet, Pee-wee doesn’t draw nearly the amount of derision that he likely would in real life. Characters are strangely drawn to him, and it’s not just other oddballs like magic shop owners. Everyone from Mickey the fugitive (Judd Omen) to the studio execs at Warner Bros. end up liking Pee-wee, never calling him out for acting strange. It’s a refreshing and subtlety different world, one where Pee-wee’s innocent naivete is taken at face value.

*insert guttural “Ha ha!” here*

Yet, Herman isn’t entirely innocent, is he? One of the things that surprised me was that he’s actually kind of a dick sometimes. It’s not just to Francis (Mark Holton), either – Pee-wee’s pretty callous to Dottie (Elizabeth Daily, the voice of Tommy Pickles from Rugrats), the adorable bike shop owner who very obviously is romantically interested in him (for whatever reason). That was the only thing that really took me by surprise; the way Pee-wee wakes up – jumping on the bed, playing with trucks, and eating a breakfast made from a Rube Goldberg machine – led me to believe he’d be a totally sympathetic protagonist. In fact, he’s got an acerbic and awfully selfish tinge to him, making him more like a snooty and pretentious child than a wholly innocent and well-meaning one.

Tim Burton’s directorial debut features music by Danny Elfman, a partnership that began with this film and would continue over the next 26 years to the present day. It also features many instances where Burton’s talents and proclivities are evident, since we can now watch this movie after 13 subsequent Burton films. Most of the signature Burton sequences take place in Pee-wee’s distraught dreams – the settings for these night terrors seem straight out of Beetlejuice, and some claymation / stop motion moments foreshadow films he would later produce like The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Although it’s not nearly as dark as the Burton films that would follow – Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns – Pee-wee does have a slightly sinister edge to it. However, it’s a sinisterness that, in all cases, is overcome by the protagonist’s passion and perseverance.

Seriously, how could this not terrify children?

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a fun movie because of Reuben’s total commitment to the character. It’s also funny, but not always because of the jokes. After all, nobody has ever thought “I know you are but what am I?” was a clever comeback. But the humor has an ironic sense to it. In fact, with his fixed-gear bicycle and his bright red bowtie, one might make the argument that Pee-wee Herman was an early incarnation of the hipster. Such a portentous interpretation of the character seems appropriate, given that this movie helped launch him into pop culture while jump-starting the career of Mr. Burton.

Final rating: 7/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • The tequila-dancing scene may not be the most inventive “win the nay-sayers over” scene, but man. That dance.
  • Elizabeth Daily is insanely cute. I was practically irate at Pee-wee for not being responsive to her interest. Although it was a little weird being so attracted to the voice of a cartoon male baby.
  • What was with the shot of all those mountain lions surrounding Pee-wee before Large Marge picked him up? That shot and the cartoon eyes that preceded it seemed disconnected and out of place, but on second thought, I’m not sure if anything could really seem out of place in this movie.
  • Quite a lecherous look that Mickey gives Pee-wee while he’s in woman’s clothing. Were those intentional homosexual undertones?
  • I read that for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Reubens made the character more of an upstanding role model for children. Good thing. If Pee-wee hadn’t evolved from how he was in this movie, he’d just be teaching a generation of kids to be snarky bastards.

Bonus image for Elizabeth Daily being adorable

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