|Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Starring: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger, Judd Omen, Irving Hellman, Monte Landis, Damon Martin, Daryl Keith Roach
Director: Tim Burton
I can still remember the first time I saw “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” I went to see it in the theater because the preview made it look pretty funny…but when the lights went down, the credits rolled, and this strange man-child began his morning rituals, I wasn’t sure what to make of it all. It struck me as less funny and more disconcerting that a grown man was acting so childish.
Eventually, of course, I’d come to realize that it was downright hilarious.
Pee-Wee Herman was a creation of comedian Paul Reubens that came to fruition during his years as a member of the famed comedy troupe, the Groundlings. The character was a huge hit, which led Reubens to stage “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” at the Roxy Theater; it played for five months to sellout crowds and, on one evening, was recorded for an HBO special. After a few more years of Pee-Wee making the rounds on talk shows, in stand-up clubs, and – most notably – a sellout performance at Carnegie Hall, Reubens decided to put together a full-length Pee-Wee Herman movie.
The film follows Herman’s adventures after his beloved bicycle is stolen. The primary suspect is the villainous rich kid, Francis (Mark Holton), who’s coveted the bike for quite some time, but Francis ain’t talkin’. Initially, Pee-Wee holds a “town meeting” of his friends and colleagues, where he attempts – perhaps a bit too elaborately – to explain the crime and determine the whereabouts of his bike.
Pee-wee: Exhibit "Q"! A scale-model of the entire mall! X marks the scene of the crime. These arrows here show the exact position of the sun at the hour of the crime. Jupiter was aligned with Pluto! The moon was in the seventh...
Pee-wee: Please save your questions until I'm through, Chuck!
Fed up with his seemingly unconcerned friends, Pee-Wee sets off to find his trusty set of wheels…which, a less-than-reputable fortune teller assures him, can be found in the basement of the Alamo. Of course, the Alamo doesn’t have a basement, but Pee-Wee doesn’t know that…and although the viewer knows his quest will be a fruitless one from the start, it’s the getting there that proves entertaining. Along the way, he catches a ride with a convict, meets a waitress who dreams of one day living in France, and performs a dance to the Champs’ “Tequila” that made it forever impossible to hear the song without picturing Pee-Wee.
“Pee’s Wee’s Big Adventure” was the full-length directorial debut of Tim Burton, and given that Burton was almost as much of an unknown quantity to most mainstream audiences as Pee-Wee Herman at the time of the film’s release, it was very difficult to tell exactly where Reubens’ vision ended and Burton’s began. Now, however, it’s a cinch to look back and identify which bits are quintessential Burton…like, for instance, the legendary Large Marge scene, where Pee-Wee hitches a ride with one of the most infamous truckers ever to traverse the six-lane blacktop, or the dream sequence where Pee-Wee imagines crazed clowns wearing hospital smocks.
The script, written by Reubens, Michael Varhol, and Phil Hartman (yes, that Phil Hartman) is full of lines which almost instantly became part of the pop culture vernacular. The Get Up Kids wrote a song called “I’m a Loner, Dottie, a Rebel,” which appears on their 1999 album, Something to Write Home About, while Gatsbys American Dream recorded a track entitled "Shhhhhh! I'm Listening to Reason," for their 2005 release, Gatsbys American Dream and the Volcano. There’s even a band called Au Revoir Simone…and if there isn’t one named Paging Mr. Herman, well, dammit, there ought to be.
Don’t be deceived by the first few minutes of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” It might start off silly, but by the end, it’s skewered tons of film clichés, offered our first glimpse at Tim Burton’s cinematic vision, and, most crucially, made you laugh more times than you can count.DVD Review:
Surprisingly, there aren’t much in the way of special features on this disc…though, to be fair, it was released way back in 2000 and hasn’t received a full-on special edition treatment. Maybe they’re waiting for Reuben’s long-rumored return to the big screen for a new Pee-Wee movie? Anyway, this does at least have a nice commentary by Reubens and Burton, but the biggest shame is that Phil Hartman is no longer with us to contribute his reminiscences of the film.