The Film: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
The Principals: Tim Burton (director), Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, James Brolin, Morgan Fairchild
The Premise: An innocent man-child travels through harsh, hostile terrain seeking his missing friend.
Is it any good? It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when new Tim Burton movies didn’t come in varying shades of Hot Topic … when his partnership with Helena Bonham Carter and his romance with Johnny Depp didn’t impose on his work … when his production design was a means to an end instead of a crutch … a time when he wasn’t advertised as “the director of Alice In Wonderland”.
When he made his feature debut with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Tim Burton was like no director we’d ever seen. And the creative partnership between him and Reubens couldn’t have been a better match of sensibilities – Burton got an excuse to experiment with a world only slightly different than our own, and Reubens got a game collaborator to help translate his iconic television and stage character to the screen. And when the marriage between director and star is that perfect, you’re at least going to get something interesting (if not brilliant).
The highest compliment I can pay Big Adventure is that it absolutely succeeds at what it sets out to do, and whether you like the results depends almost entirely on your mileage with the character. For most kids of the ‘80’s (yours truly included), Herman was an iconic, beloved figure; and it’s interesting to think about how big the character might’ve gotten if Reubens had just found a way to jerk off at home like a normal person. It’s impossible to watch the scene here where Pee-Wee’s being interrogated by the police without flashing back to the incident that crippled his career (apparently the incident itself occurred when he was visiting his parents – I guess their bathroom door didn’t have a lock?).
Speaking of jerk-offs … it’s interesting to note that the character as written really isn’t very likable. In fact, there are a couple of scenes where he’s bitchy, mean-spirited, and borderline sociopathic – in short, he really is an overgrown child who has the benefit of living in a world with other overgrown, apparently independently wealthy children (someone could probably write an interesting thesis on “Generation P” and its stunted adolescence). This doesn’t stop him from being fun, though; and actually serves to make Pee-Wee more of a compelling character. With a movie this episodic, it wouldn’t work if Reubens couldn’t carry it; and he absolutely does.
If you haven’t seen the flick in a while, it’s definitely worth a revisit. If you want to see what Tim Burton’s work looked like before it all looked the same, this is a good place to start. And if you’re unfamiliar with the character, this is probably the best introduction you could have to him.
Random anecdotes: Phil Hartman co-wrote the script with Reubens and Michael Varhol, and even shows up in a brief role. Jan Hooks (fellow Groundling alum to Hartman and Reubens) also shows up as an Alamo tour guide.
Although Burton didn’t return for the sequel Big Top Pee-Wee, he reunited with Reubens and Diane Salinger for the opening scene of Batman Returns.
Only Danny Elfman’s second film score, and his first with Tim Burton. We all know how that turned out.
As recently as 2011, Reubens was talking about re-launching Pee-Wee in a new feature film. It would probably be a disaster, and I would totally watch it.
Cinematic Soulmates: Edward Scissorhands. Ace Ventura Pet Detective. Payback. Dumb and Dumber. Lars and the Real Bike.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) 90 min
Eccentric man-child Pee-Wee Herman embarks on the big adventure of his life across the US mainland, as he sets out to find his beloved bike, when it is stolen in broad daylight.
- 08.09.1985 (USA)
- Tim Burton
- Phil Hartman
- Paul Reubens
- and 1 more credit
- Paul Reubens
- Elizabeth Daily
- Mark Holton
- Diane Salinger
- Judd Omen
- Watch or buy now