Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
Header

Prior to this review, I had seen Big Top Pee-wee exactly once in my life. After this review, I can assure you I’ll never watch it again.

As we discussed last week, I loved Pee-wee. I loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. I loved Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And yet when Big Top Pee-wee came out, I had no desire to see it at all.

You’d think, maybe, that I had tired of the character or his antics, at least to some degree. But I know for a fact I hadn’t. Big Top Pee-wee came out in 1988, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse was still on the air until 1991. I watched that show until the very end, and was surprised and disappointed when it didn’t come back for another season, so I’m sure I didn’t suffer from Pee-wee fatigue.

And I know that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was still in our regular movie rotation. Many of my friends had copies, and we’d still pop it in and watch it. I remember this because one of my friends — only one — also had a copy of Big Top Pee-wee. And we never wanted to watch that.

I don’t remember much about the advertising for the film, but I have to assume something turned me off immediately. Sure, I was seven years old and couldn’t get to a theater on my own, but my parents took us to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Bambi, which were both in theaters at about the same time as this film, so I have to conclude that I simply didn’t want to watch it.

I should have wanted to see Big Top Pee-wee, but I didn’t. And when finally I did see it with my friend…man, we hated it.

Hated it.

Exactly as much as we loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, we hated Big Top Pee-wee.

As I grew up and shared memories with friends in high school and college, I learned that they all had the same reaction. Pee-wee was great, but Big Top Pee-wee was unquestionably awful.

But here’s the thing: nobody brought up any specific complaints.

We could all bond over our favorite bits of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but nobody ever mentioned any particular reason that Big Top Pee-wee was bad. No quotes, no scenes, no sequences. And it wasn’t just my friends; Big Top Pee-wee was a film that nobody talked about. Ever. It was never mentioned as anyone’s favorite film growing up and never even mentioned as disappointing, outside of conversations that were already about Pee-wee.

It existed. We all saw it. But, like war, it was an experience we’d prefer not to discuss.

The closest thing to actual criticism I remember anyone having is that Big Top Pee-wee was a love story. And, yeah, sure. I’d buy that that was a problem. I was a stupid kid. I didn’t want to see Pee-wee fall in love; I wanted to see him talking to puppets and riding an awesome bike over a Godzilla set. If Big Top Pee-wee was about…ew…relationships, yeah, I could see myself tuning out. In fact, the one distinct memory of the film I had was Pee-wee strutting around in the dark, playing a love song on an accordion while a woman threw glass at him. The story checked out.

And, in a way, that was pretty good news. While I wouldn’t have had the patience for some sappy, boring love story at age seven, I sure as hell have the patience now. Revisiting a film that disappointed you as a kid only to find some real merit and heart in it as an adult is one of the great joys of growing up. About maturing. About understanding so much more of the world that you’re able to see beauty where you saw nothing at all before.

So I sat down to review Big Top Pee-wee. Not as a kid with a thirst for excitement and silliness and bright colors and corny jokes…but as a man. As a critic. As a grownup who understands that the most rewarding art takes its time and makes you work for it.

And fuck almighty does Big Top Pee-wee suck an egg.

Watching this movie through patient, receptive, adult eyes offers no insight whatsoever into what Paul Reubens — or director Randal Kleiser, of Grease and The Blue Lagoon fame — was trying to accomplish. It’s a trainwreck from beginning to end…the kind of film that starts off pretty bad and gets significantly worse almost every minute that follows. In fact, I’m writing the first draft of this review only a few minutes after watching it, and I wouldn’t be able to identify a plot arc to save my life.

Honestly, the most difficult part is figuring out where to begin. With Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I had to actively look for things to bring up as problems. (And here’s another one I forgot: the studio chase goes on way too long. But it’s pretty cool and Twisted Sister sings “Burn in Hell” so…yeah, still can’t think of much.) Big Top Pee-wee is the opposite; I’m afraid that once I start discussing its flaws, I’ll keep going until I’m dead.

Alright, I think I can say something nice, and I can do it by describing the basic conceit of the film. So, that’s good, and probably a fair place to start.

Big Top Pee-wee introduces us to a version of the character that runs his own farm. To go into any more depth about that would be to immediately start rambling about how terrible this movie is, so I’ll just skip ahead to the fact that a storm comes through, depositing a circus on Pee-wee’s land. To go into any more depth about that would also be to immediately start rambling about how terrible this movie is.

So, here’s what I like: each of the three Pee-wee films (and Pee-wee’s Playhouse) features a different incarnation of the character. They live in different places, they associate with different people, and while they’re largely the same in terms of how they think and behave, there are at least small differences in what they specifically want and what they specifically find important.

And I like that. I think it was a good impulse to not make this a sequel to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure so much as a successor. We don’t have to worry about where Pee-wee and Dottie end up as a couple, or what scheme Francis is cooking up to steal the bike again, or whether or not Amazing Larry will share his comments with the rest of us.

It’s wise to set a precedent for each Pee-wee production being a self-contained little world. They each get to succeed or fail on their own merits. We don’t go into them with any particular expectations, and we’ll have less of a temptation to measure them against each other. It also allows Reubens and company to take the character in unexpected directions without any necessary connective tissue. If Pee-wee is a private eye in one movie and an astronaut in the next, we never need to learn how he went from one to the other, because he didn’t. Pee-wee was always a private eye, and Pee-wee was always an astronaut.

So far, so good.

Where Farmer Pee-wee falls down is that son of a bitch does this movie stink.

Farmer Pee-wee just isn’t as…interesting. The Pee-wee we know from big adventures and playhouses was less a character than he was a presence. He didn’t grow or learn or change…he was just Pee-wee. He just existed. That was thrilling and liberating in its own way, but it also meant he could show us anything. Part of the fun of watching him was wondering where he’d end up next, and what he’d do when he got there.

Farmer Pee-wee, by contrast, wakes up and does chores. Sure, he’s still in his grey suit and red bowtie, but now he’s tilling land and tending animals and shopping for groceries. There’s a reason he didn’t do any of that stuff in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure or Pee-wee’s Playhouse: it isn’t any fun.

I get the feeling that Big Top Pee-wee is, in fact, supposed to be fun. Which is disappointing in its own way, because if the entire concept were that Pee-wee lived some boring life before the storm came through (see Dorothy Gale for the obvious template) and the circus taught him how to have fun, that would be a neat idea.

Instead, though, Pee-wee does seem to be already having fun. It’s just that the audience, to a man, is not.

Even the music — again by Danny Elfman — can’t seem to find any joy in the proceedings. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure it was positively bursting with creativity, incorporating and bleeding into sound effects and cues that came directly from the action on screen. That film’s soundtrack is catchy, memorable, and instantly made Elfman’s career as a composer. Here…well, there’s still music. But I sure don’t remember any of it.

I can’t blame Elfman for that, really. The previous film’s opening had Pee-wee’s incredible (and incredibly convoluted) breakfast machine as its centerpiece, giving Elfman a fun, silly, mechanical device upon which to hang all of his musical hooks. Wheels turned, robots swiveled, slices of toast were launched…Elfman had plenty to work with, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he started his original score duties with that scene and wrote the rest of the compositions from there.

Big Top Pee-wee, in stark contrast, opens with Pee-wee slowly harvesting vegetables by hand. And that’s just not as…inspiring. Especially to someone like Elfman, who thrives on outsized, bombastic quirk.

It’s a bit odd seeing Pee-wee so overwhelmingly happy in this film, at least somewhat due to the fact that there’s no clear reason for him to be. In the previous film, his house was packed with toys and games and candy and gadgets and magic tricks and everything else a little kid could want. Pee-wee, a little kid in an adult’s body, was understandably enamored with this life.

Here, he’s just in a house. A pretty boring house. On some pretty boring land. There’s animals everywhere, I guess, and that’s kind of cool…but Pee-wee waking up excited to get down on sustainable agriculture is not the same as Pee-wee waking up excited to crash a firetruck into Mr. Potato Head. It’s just not…interesting.

I said in my review of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that the film created a universe in which Pee-wee’s outlandish eccentricities fit. Big Top Pee-wee does the opposite, creating a universe in which Pee-wee’s eccentricities no longer fit the character itself. They’re just…there.

Pee-wee looks and sounds like Pee-wee, and often acts like Pee-wee, but he doesn’t seem to have any reason for being here. In fact, you could swap him out for any other vaguely dimwitted character of your choice, and the film would play out almost exactly as it already does. That’s something you absolutely, positively could not say about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Also, Big Top Pee-wee has a talking pig and fucking fuck the fuck on.

I…

Like, I honestly don’t even understand it. Why does this movie have a talking pig? I have genuinely no clue what they were going for.

Maybe that’s the quirk the movie thought it needed, but it feels entirely misplaced and unsuitably cartoony. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a thousand times more cartoony than Big Top Pee-wee is, and a talking pig would have been out of place even there.

In fact, we can compare and contrast a bit. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, there’s a scene in which our hero calls Dottie from a payphone. She holds the phone out for Pee-wee’s dog, Speck, who grumbles and barks at his owner through the receiver.

Speck doesn’t hold the phone himself, Speck doesn’t talk, Speck doesn’t climb through the phone and lick Pee-wee’s face or any kind of crap like that. The dog just acts like a dog. Pee-wee jokes around with Speck, pretending they’re having an actual conversation and eventually asking him to put Dottie back on the line, but the joke is that they aren’t really having a conversation. That sort of goes out the window the moment the animal talks back, wouldn’t you say?

And as long as we’re making direct comparisons, let’s compare Pee-wee’s flames.

In a word, Gina in this film is no Dottie. In a few hundred more words, I’ll explain fully.

See, as with the talking pig, Big Top Pee-wee misses what was funny about the first film. It corrects for a problem it never had, cheapening the experience as a result. Here, it’s the spark of romance. And as with talking animals, the first film was funnier for not having one.

Dottie adored Pee-wee. That was clear. It was also the joke. Pee-wee…well, he’s Pee-wee. He dresses and acts like an idiot. He’s often selfish and always self-absorbed. He sees very little beyond himself or his most immediate need. He’s completely and totally disinterested in romance, to the point that his response to Dottie’s overtures is less a rebuff than it is a vacuum. Dottie gonna dote, and that’s funny because Pee-wee is both oblivious to and undeserving of the doting.

There’s also a classic moment in that movie in which a large man chases Pee-wee around huge, artificial dinosaurs, intending to bust his head open…because he thinks Pee-wee’s been smooching with his girl, Simone. The joke, of course, is that there was nothing romantic between Pee-wee and Simone. Simone may have had a little bit of a crush on him, but it’s only made funny by the fact that Pee-wee appears to be utterly sexless. Not only did nothing happen; nothing could have happened. He’s Pee-wee. He might as well be a Ken doll.

Big Top Pee-wee loses all of the comedy of these non-romances and introduces a profound new layer of discomfort by letting Pee-wee…erm…reciprocate? I don’t know; I’m trying to think of a better way to put it than “letting Pee-wee fuck.” But rest assured, this is the movie nobody asked for in which Pee-wee fucks.

And it’s not just the fucking. It’s the fact that Pee-wee is constantly horny. Long before he and Gina get Pee-wee Hammerin’ he’s drooling all over her, flirting heavily with her, making out with her by a waterfall. You know. All the stuff Pee-wee should never, under any circumstances, do. And earlier in the film he literally can’t control his urges, hopping on and dry humping his fiancee Winnie. It happens multiple times, and it’s really pretty gross.

That’s right; fiancee. It’s certainly bad enough that this incarnation of Pee-wee actively seeks to insert his penis into things, but it’s also problematic in his treatment of Winnie. Yes, he shrugged off Dottie in the first film, but the joke was pretty clearly two-fold: he was clueless, and she should have known better. Here he strings his fiancee along until he tires of her (because she won’t let him fuck her in front of a group of children…I shit you not), and then makes out with sexy trapeze artist Gina behind her back.

He doesn’t leave Winnie or put the breaks on with Gina; he just pursues both of them for no reason with very little consequence. (Winnie leaves him but they remain super awesome totally great friends, as you do after you’re exposed for actively cheating on your significant other.) He’s just kind of…awful.

Pee-wee is always kind of a dick. I know that. That’s actually part of what makes him funny, and oddly endearing. But here he’s just a sex-obsessed idiot, which is neither funny nor endearing…especially in a children’s film. And after Gina (rightly) dumps his ass for two-timing, he wins her back not with a grand gesture, not by saving the circus, not by doing anything in the least bit selfless, but by bothering her relentlessly, night and day, against her clearly communicated wishes, until she spreads her legs just to shut him up.

And they lived happily ever after.

Fuck this movie.

Well, I say movie. It’s certainly long enough to be one, but it doesn’t behave like one. For starters, there’s no plot. Sure, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure had a decidedly inconsequential plot, but there’s a big difference between “decidedly inconsequential” and “completely lacking of.”

Here, I’ll illustrate. We can easily identify the primary plot points of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and see that it’s a clear and natural sequence of events: Pee-wee loves his bike, Pee-wee’s bike is stolen, Pee-wee seeks his bike, Pee-wee finds his bike.

Now, Big Top Pee-wee: Pee-wee works on a farm, a storm puts a circus in Pee-wee’s yard, Pee-wee woos an acrobat, some old people shrink because they eat magic cocktail wieners.

Bet you think I made up that last one, huh?

I didn’t, and that’s the way the movie ends.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was relentlessly silly, but every sequence followed from the previous and led into the next. Part of the reason it’s such a watchable film is that it flows so naturally from beginning to end that it’s easy to get swept away by it, even at its most ridiculous.

Big Top Pee-wee just does something, then another thing, then something else, then it ends. It feels careless, as though it were assembled from outtakes from a whole slew of different Pee-wee movies, all of which were terrible.

Narrative arc, of course, is one thing, but character arc can and often does make up the difference. For instance, The Royal Tenenbaums lacks a strong narrative arc, but it makes up for it (and then some) with important, incredible, artfully explored, deeply intertwined character arcs. Try to tell the story of The Royal Tenenbaums and you won’t have much to say, but try to explain what the characters go through and you can spend hours without scratching the surface.

Not that I’m suggesting Big Top Pee-wee needs to have anything in common with that film or its approach, but it’s a useful example to keep in mind as we look at what this movie does, or fails to do. It has no discernible plot arc, and it doesn’t rely on inventive setpieces and wacky comedy like its predecessor…so does it go the character route instead?

It does not. Pee-wee makes no progress as a human being, aside from the rite of passage of losing his presumed virginity. Not that that actually registers as much of an event. It just…happens, and we move on. Gina likes him again, though, charmed forever by the Pee-wee Hardon. Pee-wee at the end of the film does do a brief tightrope walk, which fulfills his goal of participating in the circus, but it’s a goal that was mentioned exactly once earlier and which he could only have had for a few days at most.

So what about Gina? Does she grow or change or learn anything? Of course not. She’s there to be made out with and plowed. She fulfills both purposes and accomplishes (and wants) nothing else.

Winnie — an underused but reasonably game Penelope Ann Miller — likes Pee-wee and then leaves him to marry four different men at once. I don’t know what that is, but it’s certainly not a character arc. Maybe it’s a joke about how she wouldn’t give it up to him but is perfectly happy getting gang-banged. It’s unclear. I’m glad for that much.

Also she joins the circus because why the fuck not.

Then there’s ringmaster Mace Montana, played by an only partially drunk Kris Kristofferson. He gets a lot of screentime, but to no real end. He sets up his circus on Pee-wee’s land and kind of…walks around a lot, I guess? I don’t know.

He’s in a lot of scenes but I’d have a hard time telling you much of anything he said. At the end of the movie he puts on his circus for everyone, which isn’t much of a character arc as that’s, y’know, his job.

The minor characters are similarly wasted. For the most part they’re just standard circus freaks (a bearded lady, a two-inch-tall woman, a human cannonball, a…hermaphrodite…), but we get a few that seem to be more important and go just as nowhere.

Michu Meszaros — yes, the little fellow in the ALF suit — plays Andy, who has a good amount of lines but doesn’t seem to have been given a personality. It’s a little disheartening to see him in this film, because Reubens seems to think it’s enough that he’s small. Meszaros doesn’t get any jokes, say anything important, or do anything of significance. He just keeps getting trotted out like a freak, which is odd, because the film also suggests that circus folk deserve to be treated like actual people. (Spoiler: in the end, they still aren’t. The old people who hated them just shrink because they eat magic cocktail wieners.)

The dog-faced boy is played by Benecio del Toro in his first major role, and I assure you it’s no longer on his resume. He’s another character who gets a lot of lines but has no more significance than anyone else. At one point he makes dog noises, which I’m reasonably certain is meant to qualify as a joke.

Then there’s a mermaid and the acrobats who fuck Pee-wee’s ex and a clown named Snowball who Kristofferson calls Showball in what I’m certain was a blooper nobody was paying enough attention to reshoot.

I don’t care about any of these people. Ever. For any reason. None of them mean anything to me, whereas Pee-wee’s Big Adventure gave me a huge smile just by showing me Jan Hooks. Or by having Mickey the criminal praise Pee-wee’s film from a prison bus. Or by surrounding Pee-wee with Satan’s Helpers and letting him get out of his pickle in a uniquely Pee-wee way.

What I mean to say is that everything in that movie was a delight. It went from great scene to great scene, with so much to enjoy at literally every point. In Big Top Pee-wee I didn’t care once. It’s more than a step backward; it’s a fundamental disinterest in providing an experience of any kind. It’s just…there.

While researching a few basic facts about this film, I saw that, at some point while promoting it, Reubens said that the cast spent a year and a half going through circus training. Imagine if they spent a year and a half writing jokes instead.

In the end, I don’t care how well Pee-wee or his fuckbuddy perform stunts. If I want to see circus acts, I’ll go to the circus. There’s also the sad fact that while it might be impressive that Paul Reubens can briefly walk a tightrope after 18 months of practice, it’s not anywhere near as satisfying or interesting to watch as someone who has spent his life honing more impressive feats. Even as circus spectacle, it fails.

No, I didn’t want to see this circus crap. I wanted to see Pee-wee. I wanted to see comedy. I wanted to see inventiveness and creativity and giddy, silly fun.

But instead I got…nothing.

Nothing at all.

Just something that ate another hour and a half of my life, and didn’t seem to have any idea what it wanted to do with it.

And then Big Top Pee-wee just…stops, no wiser than I am about whatever it was trying to say, or accomplish, or make me feel.

I think that says something. Maybe it says everything.

In a nice bit of series continuity, we’re introduced to each film’s incarnation of Pee-wee in a dream. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, he dreams of winning the Tour de France on his beloved bicycle, tying neatly into the film we’re about to see. In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, he dreams of saying goodbye to an alien buddy, setting up the main themes of the film: Pee-wee’s desire for close friendship and his reluctance to leave home. Great.

Big Top Pee-wee also opens with a dream, in which Pee-wee croons “The Girl on the Flying Trapeze” to an audience of fawning women. It’s very un-Pee-wee, and also doesn’t tie into the film at all. Sure, he eventually does fall for Gina, who suits the description, but his fantasy is about being a famous singer…not a guy who shuffles along a tightrope for a few minutes at the end of a shitty movie.

Like the film itself, it’s just…there.

There’s also a running joke about Pee-wee’s pig getting repeatedly violated by a sexually aggressive hippopotamus.

I could have left that out of the review pretty easily so…you’re welcome.

My dislike of the film is obviously not unique. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure made around six times its budget at the box office, turning it into a surprise hit. Big Top Pee-wee, by contrast, lost five million dollars…which was almost the entire budget of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, to put it in perspective.

It’s possible that we might have gotten another Pee-wee movie had Paul Reubens not run into legal trouble in 1991, but I think it’s fair to say that after Big Top Pee-wee, nobody was clamoring for another film. Possibly not even Reubens, who can’t have been ignorant of its commercial failure and toxic reputation.

But time passes. Nearly 30 years in this case. And we eventually did get a third Pee-wee film.

At this point, the record was split. One film timeless and thoroughly enjoyable, the other a joyless flop.

Which way would Pee-wee’s Big Holiday tip the scale?

We’ll find out next week.

Welcome back to Rule of Three, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related comedy films, weekly, beginning on April Fool’s Day. They could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. It’s a spinoff of the Trilogy of Terror series, but with less disemboweling.

I started this series looking at three Jim Henson-era Muppet films, which was an easy choice for me, because the Muppets were and remain an important creative presence in my life. This year, I’m going to look at another of them: Pee-wee Herman.

I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid, VHS cassettes were still quite expensive. I have no idea how much my parents paid for our copy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but I can assure you they got their money’s worth.

I loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. I don’t mean that I watched it a lot or enjoyed it or never really got sick of it. Those things are all true, but those things aren’t love.

And I loved this movie.

This was one I turned to again and again. One I’d watch with my brother. With friends when they came over. By myself if I was bored. And if I was at somebody’s house and they had a copy…well, we’d watch that copy, because a lot of people owned it and we all sure loved it.

Which is kind of funny, looking back, because the central joke of the entire film — the incongruous and absurd nature of Pee-wee himself — isn’t something I ever picked up on as a kid. Paul Reubens — who created and played the character — made Pee-wee seem so effortlessly fun to spend time with that we never questioned anything about his nature. About who he was. About how strange he was. To us…well…he just seemed like an exceptionally relatable adult.

And we loved him for it.

I distinctly remember catching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on television at some point when I was in college. It was probably on Comedy Central, or something, and I tuned in at about the time Pee-wee hitches a ride from escaped convict Mickey. I sat and watched it, expecting to be embarrassed. Amused, maybe, but overall a bit ashamed at whatever silly nonsense used to appeal to me so.

I was a literature major at the time, and a philosophy minor. I was older. I spent my time reading great novels and writing worse ones. I still stayed up with friends late into the night, but instead of watching cartoons and playing video games we were studying and creating and having discussions. I had grown up. I had outgrown so much. Surely, clearly, I had outgrown this.

I didn’t. And I was shocked at just how funny Pee-wee’s Big Adventure still was to me. In fact, it was a better film than I ever remembered it being.

If you haven’t seen the movie since you were a kid, you’re probably questioning my sanity about now. So watch it again; I promise you, it’s worth revisiting through adult eyes. It will remind you of what it was like to be a kid, but it will also give you a chance to see just how infectiously charming a production it actually is.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was released in 1985. I had always thought it came after (or during) Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but that show didn’t debut until 1986. Pee-wee Herman as a character originated in the late 70s, but audiences didn’t get to see him in any major venue until 1981, when Reubens created a stage show for him. The show was moderately more adult-oriented than the later Pee-wee outings, but the character himself was more or less in place already.

So, what was the character?

It’s…hard to say, really. Pee-wee Herman himself is, at the very least, anachronistic. He’s like a 1950s toddler trapped in an adult’s body, though only rarely does anybody treat him that way. He seems to have a child’s mind and sense of humor, and certainly has a child’s concept of what is and is not important.

He’s a bit of a brat, a bit selfish, and comically oblivious. He also has a tremendous amount of energy, which is humorously at odds with his button-down appearance. He’s a circus clown perennially dressed for a job interview.

And that’s something I never actually noticed as a child. I don’t think I was old or perceptive enough to pick up on the fact that adults didn’t actually dress that way. To my uneducated eyes, Pee-wee checked out. Why wouldn’t grown-ups walk around in a grey suit and red bowtie?

Pee-wee never seemed ridiculous to me. How could he? He was living the life every child hoped to lead when he or she grew up. No job, plenty of friends, all the toys he could ever want…whether in his Big Adventure home or the Playhouse, Pee-wee seemed to have it all. Isn’t that exactly what we hoped getting older would entail? Sure, we’d have to go to school and get a job…but if it was all in service of us getting our own space to fill with any toy, game, or curio we wanted, wasn’t that worth it?

But then, you grow up. We all do. That’s every child’s tragedy.

Falling down and scraping your knee is replaced with losing your job. The squabbles you have on the schoolyard are replaced with betrayals that permanently end relationships. The hope that you get the popular new toy for Christmas is replaced by the worry that you won’t be able to pay the rent this month.

Your priorities change. Your focus changes. Your outlook changes. Your life changes, and, once it does — and it always does — you can never go back.

When I saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in college, I figured I might enjoy it, but I knew I wouldn’t love it. I couldn’t. It represented another, earlier version of me. One I literally no longer was. After all, if you traveled back in time and met yourself at age 10, how much would the two of you actually have in common?

A rhetorical question, obviously, but one which probably does have an answer: entertainment.

Not all entertainment, mind you, but the best films and television shows suitable for children also appeal to adults. That’s because nobody likes being treated like an idiot. Children are a bit more tolerant of it than adults are, but they prefer to be treated with respect. They prefer to be engaged with. They prefer to feel like they belong. And a film or television show that does that for a child will likely do it for an adult, too.

Pee-wee Herman headlined both a film and television show that did exactly that. They appealed to children without pandering, and was able to hold an adult’s attention as well. Children could laugh with Pee-wee, and adults could laugh at him. Parents and children were both enjoying the same jokes in different ways. Like the character, the comedy itself was a child dressed like a grownup. Suited to both audiences.

I could talk for ages about Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but I did that already. Instead, I’m going to focus on the film, and why that, specifically, holds up and succeeds.

Here’s why it, specifically, holds up and succeeds: the tremendous amount of talent that went into it.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure could have been nothing. A rambunctious, silly outing about some bizarre eccentric losing his bicycle and chasing it all over creation. I mean, reading that sentence, how could it not have been nothing? What I’m trying to say is that the film so easily could have lacked creative, artistic, and comic merit entirely, and we wouldn’t have a right to complain. When Beverly Hills Chihuahua got bad reviews, did anyone even care? What did people expect? Of course it’s bad; just look at it!

But Pee-wee’s Big Adventure knows better. It knows that no matter how frivolous, absurd, or uncomplicated your plot is, it — like your audience — deserves respect. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure could have been a longform experiment in anti-comedy, and nobody could possibly begrudge it for taking that approach. Instead, the creative minds behind the film took their decidedly idiotic setup and tried to figure out a way to make it good.

I don’t need to make a list of films that took the easiest way out, hoping to coast on a gimmick or a star or a license; you can already think of dozens. Many of them even had talent behind them. The problem was that the talent wasn’t used. It wasn’t deemed necessary. They decided that the film would be good enough without trying, so why try?

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure tries, and it answers that question: because the fruits of success will be so much greater.

Sure, it probably could have coasted on its quirk or the recognition of its title character. But by putting so much talent to use, the minds behind the film gave it life.

Enough dancing around it. Who is this talent?

There’s Paul Reubens, obviously. Reubens was — and remains — a talented comic actor, and by the time of this film he’d been performing as Pee-wee Herman live on stage for around four years. That gave him plenty of time to hone the character, to learn firsthand what did and did not work, and to get a deep sense of what audiences wanted from the Pee-wee experience.

Part of the reason I was so surprised to learn that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came before Pee-wee’s Playhouse is that the character here feels so…complete. It feels like something that had been developed and lived in and built from the inside out week after week for years. Sure enough, it was…just not anywhere I was looking.

Reubens faces a difficult balancing act with Pee-wee. The character has to register as annoying, but he shouldn’t annoy the audience. We need to be on his side, but he’s nothing like us or anybody we know. He needs to be somebody we’re interested in watching on screen, while he has neither any heroic nor villainous traits to speak of. The fact that Pee-wee was so popular for so long is entirely down to Ruebens understanding how delicately to work the controls. Push hard over here, ease up over there, let this moment ride for exactly this long…

And, unquestionably, Reubens derserves much of the credit for making Pee-wee’s Big Adventure work. But it’s also down to the material, which Reubens wrote with Michael Varhol and Phil Hartman.

Phil fucking Hartman.

I somehow never realized before writing this review that Hartman worked on the script. I knew he and Reubens were friends; Hartman played gruff seaman Captain Carl in both the live Pee-wee shows and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and he appears in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure briefly as a reporter. But the fact that the late, immensely talented, much-missed, brilliantly funny Phil Hartman sat down at a typewriter and helped Reubens write the film goes a long way toward explaining why it works as well as it does. He knew how Reubens worked best, how the character worked best, and had a profound understanding of the nature and rhythm of comedy.

There was no better possible cowriter.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is remembered as a sequence of big moments and setpieces, but the most surprising thing when re-watching the film is just how memorable all of the moments and setpieces are. There’s no single showstopper and no real filler material; every scene is clearly, obviously crafted to be as successful in isolation as any other. Honestly, during this rewatch, I realized that I could have told you literally everything that happens in the film, despite having not seen it for years. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the order of the scenes correct, but I sure as hell remembered every damn thing Pee-wee did on his cross-country journey to retrieve his bike.

That’s the mark of strong writing; Reubens and Hartman made everything that happened memorable. Pee-wee being chased around the big dinosaurs at the truck stop. Pee-wee wrestling Francis in the massive bathtub. Pee-wee crossdressing to elude the law. Pee-wee singing with a hobo. Pee-wee hitching a ride with Large Marge. Pee-wee rescuing animals from a burning petshop.

In a film so impressively, defiantly committed to a plot that doesn’t matter, everything feels like it matters.

And, of course, I can’t neglect to mention the rightly revered “Tequila” scene, in which Pee-wee angers a bar full of bikers and wins them over with an impromptu dance to the classic Champs song. (The bikers are part of a gang called Satan’s Helpers, which I didn’t remember and which made me laugh quite hard this time through.)

It’s such a famous scene that if you Google “Pee-wee shoes” you’ll find the platform footwear specifically from this scene — despite the fact that he only wears it for a few minutes and it isn’t even his. I’d even wager that this film is the only reason many people my age know “Tequila.” (It’s certainly the reason we know there’s no basement at the Alamo.)

I actually remember the first time I heard “Tequila” on the radio, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was in the car with my parents and my mind was absolutely blown. It was a real song? To this day I can’t hear it without thinking of Pee-wee’s desperate, silly dance, and while my tastes have matured this is still one of my favorite musical moments in film ever.

So we have the leading man and the script…but that’s not all that makes Pee-wee’s Big Adventure great. There’s also the direction, which is bottomlessly inventive, colorful, and confident…playing the silliness straight without losing an opportunity to lean into a great visual gag.

Who directed it? Tim fucking Burton.

Of course, at the time Tim Burton was a fresh-faced nobody. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was his first serious gig. If he was going to go anywhere, this was likely his one chance to make an impression, and he sure as hell did.

Everybody who’s seen the film remembers his touches. They remember the way he shot Pee-wee’s elaborate breakfast machine, despite the fact that it appears only in the film’s opening. They remember the terrifying closeup on the mechanical clown after the bike is stolen. They remember the stylized lighting and angles of Pee-wee’s recurring nightmares.

Reubens brought the character and Hartman brought the comedy but Burton brought the entire, unforgettable visual approach that makes the film what it is. I’d even say that the visual inventiveness is what made so many kids love the film in the first place. Before you ever get a handle on what’s happening, or the jokes, or the innate excitement of a roadtrip, you’re already drawn in by what you see. By the vivid and striking colors. By the artfully cluttered set design. By the hypnotic movements of spinning wheels and drinking birds and endlessly flipped flapjacks. Burton created not just a film, but a universe in which Pee-wee’s outlandish eccentricities fit.

It’s a beautiful film, impressively shot for what could have been a throwaway comedy vehicle. To cite just one perfect, tiny example, there’s the understated reveal that Pee-wee’s bathroom window is actually an aquarium…a sight gag so natural that all it takes is a goldfish swimming into view to make it work.

Burton’s one-two punch of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beatlejuice established him very deservedly as one of the most inventive and creative directors working at the time. Studios were so impressed with his work that for his third major film he was handed the reins to Batman.

When you see people disparaging Burton’s latter-day output, this is why. He began his career by excitably tearing into the film industry and making each moment so distinct, so personal, so unique…and seems to be intent on ending it with predictability and hollow quirk. The man who upended patterns has settled into one of his own, and that’s disappointing. But go back to his early career, and you’ll see true genius at work.

Then — oh yes — there’s probably the single best thing about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: the score by Danny Elfman.

Danny. Fucking. Elfman.

See? I was not kidding about the talent involved with this movie. As with Burton, this film was Elfman’s first big opportunity as a composer. Prior to this he was best known for his band Oingo Boingo. After this he’d be a strongly sought-after musical talent that composed immortal themes and other tracks for The Simpsons, Batman, Beetlejuice, Tales from the Crypt, Chicago, and much, much more.

Be honest: you can hear the score to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in your head right now, can’t you?

It really is brilliant. So unnecessarily loud and bombastic…a serious orchestra playing carnival melodies…silly compositions played with incredible drama and import. It’s the perfect soundtrack to the outsized importance of Pee-wee’s quest for his stolen bicycle, and Elfman didn’t just write some great pieces and move on to his next project; he actually tailored bits of his compositions to precise moments in the film. He ends one song on a note that falls exactly as Pee-wee licks butter from an oversized novelty knife. Much later he integrates the sound of the spurs from Pee-wee’s cowboy costume into the rhythm of another song.

Twice he actually builds pieces around sounds that are happening on screen. The first is when Pee-wee is singing an improvised tune on his bicycle in the park, and the second is when he’s pounding on his rival Francis’ door. In print that doesn’t sound like much, but knowing Pee-wee you can imagine how irregular these things might be. Pee-wee himself isn’t musical, and when he knocks he doesn’t do so with a clear or predictable pattern. Nevertheless, Elfman composes around these moments, and it helps to establish the soundtrack as being the genuine musical accompaniment Pee-wee hears in his head every day of his life.

There’s little negative that I can say about the film at all, to be honest. Perhaps the one criticism I have is the least important one: as much as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure feels like…well…a big adventure, the scope of the film may actually be quite small. Before he leaves home, Pee-wee gets a fraudulent tip that his bike is in the basement of the Alamo, so he heads right to Texas. Then he finds out that a child actor in Hollywood has it, so he goes there instead. And…that’s about it.

What’s more, we don’t know where Pee-wee starts his adventure. Sure, it could be Maine or something, which would imply a true cross-country trip even if we don’t see most of it. But since Pee-wee visits the Cabazon Dinosaurs in California before he gets to Texas, it’s possible that he started in California anyway, meaning he didn’t do much other than go to Texas and return.

But, come on, even I know that’s not a criticism, and Pee-wee Goes to Texas wouldn’t have been nearly as gripping a title. The fact is that the film feels larger than it really is, and that’s precisely the achievement that any work of art reaches for.

However much or little ground Pee-wee’s trip actually covers, it’s the experience that matters, and the experience is enhanced immeasurably by the bit characters he meets along the way. Reubens may have had all the time he needed to hone Pee-wee himself, but even the minor characters in this film feel complete and lived in. I can’t watch the scene in which Pee-wee visits Mario the magic shop owner without believing whole-heartedly that the two have known each other for years, and have amused each other with props and tricks longer than we’ll ever know. That one scene implies an entire, believable friendship.

Then there’s Mickey, fleeing the cops after cutting a tag off of a mattress. (“I got a real bad temper,” he explains.) He’s played by a guy with the excellent name Judd Omen, who’s had roles in just about everything. Mickey is the first new face Pee-wee meets on his journey, and the interplay between the hardened criminal and unapologetic manchild is some of the funniest stuff in the movie. Funnier, of course, is the fact that Mickey doesn’t tire of Pee-wee, even after the latter drives his car off a cliff. Rather, Mickey likes Pee-wee so much that he needs to leave him behind. “Look kid, I like you. I like you a lot. That’s why I can’t drag you into this,” he apologizes.

The best of the supporting characters is the Alamo tourguide, played by the also-dearly-missed Jan Hooks. It’s what should have been a thankless part, but Hooks finds a way to bring it to life. In fact, the tourguide really only needs to annoy Pee-wee by taking too long to bring the group down to the basement. She just needs to drone on and be boring, and that would sell the joke.

But Hooks, wisely, doesn’t take the character there at all. That would have been the easy way out, and Hooks goes for something far more rewarding. Her tourguide eats up plenty of time, of course, and gets right under Pee-wee’s skin as she must, but she’s actually never boring.

Hooks taps instead into a kind of relentless sunniness. The tourguide smiles widely and incessantly, chews gum, launches enthusiastically into long discussions about things that aren’t interesting at all. Her delivery of, “Yes, there are thousands and thousands of uses for corn, all of which I will tell you about right now,” belongs in a dry comedy hall of fame.

All she had to do was stand in Pee-wee’s way, but instead Hooks crafted a complete character. Someone who loves her job a little too much, and finds pride and pleasure in the mundanity that so many others overlook. (The fact that she works for San Antonio Parks and Recreation makes it very easy to see her as an accidental precursor to Leslie Knope.)

A lesser actor would have taken a Ben Stein approach, leaning into the obvious monotony. Jan Hooks, by contrast, chews gum and lights up the scene with her big, smiling eyes…which only needles Pee-wee more, and makes the sequence far funnier as well.

Then there’s Elizabeth Daily, who plays Dottie.

And, man, I love Dottie. I always have. She’s just so…wonderful. So understated and adorable. And while I never paid much attention to it as a kid, the running joke of Pee-wee utterly ignoring her romantic overtures is deeply funny to watch.

It’s only this time around that I noticed that after Pee-wee ignores her hug to fawn over his bike, Dottie turns her abortive gesture into a kind of awkward stretch. It’s so perfect and well-played.

Dottie is just a delight. While writing up this piece I wondered if she’d done much after this film and, sure enough, she has, mainly as a voice actor. She played Tommy Pickles in Rugrats, which is something else I watched endlessly as a kid and somehow never once realized. She also played the title pig in the sequel to Babe and continues to voice characters regularly in cartoons and video games. The oddest thing I learned is that she appeared on Saturday Night Live the year after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out…as a musical guest.

Dottie is also important for understanding how Pee-wee functions in this movie.

She cares about him, and not just romantically. She treats him with respect. She, like all of the other characters, either doesn’t notice his eccentricities or finds them passively endearing. Pee-wee is a force of juvenile energy and mischief, but she treats him the way she treats everybody else: fondly. The characters in this film, Dottie chief among them, are not only accepting of Pee-wee’s lifestyle, but are supportive of it.

However he lives, for whatever reason, he’s happy. And don’t we all deserve happiness, whatever it might represent for each of us?

The great untold joke of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is that you’d think the ultimate lesson is that Pee-wee is too naive. That his personal, sheltered view doesn’t align with the world at large. That, once he leaves his small comfort zone, he’ll learn the hard way that life isn’t what he thinks it is.

…but that doesn’t happen. People like Pee-wee. People reach out to help him. He wins over his initial detractors, ends the film with new friends from all walks of life, and even impresses Warner Bros. so much with his heartwarming tale of bicycle theft that they make a movie out of it.

Pee-wee is just Pee-wee. No, he’s not like anyone else. But, so what?

We’re all different, in our own way. Pee-wee just happens to have no interest in hiding it.

So, no. The lesson isn’t that we all have to grow up sometime. The lesson is the opposite. The lesson is to grow up when you want to grow up, or not at all. It’s your life. And you should enjoy it. You can play by your own rules. Be a loner. A rebel.

Pee-wee’s path through life is emphatically unlike anyone else’s — within the movie or without. And that’s okay. Because he is who he is. This is his life. And people treat him the way he should be treated. Not like a pariah or a weirdo or a dope…but like a human being.

So, yes, I watched Pee-wee’s Big Adventure endlessly as a kid. Looking back on it now, through adult eyes with adult expectations, I can conclude that, in this instance at least, my younger self had pretty good taste.

Of course, three years later we’d get a sequel, and I watched that one, too.

Once.

Tune in next week, when I’ll finally bring myself to watch it a second time.

…the things I do for you people.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...