Flashback: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
(This piece was originally written in September 2008, right after I saw Pee Wee’s Big Adventure for the first time. I re-post it today because Old School ’80s pointed out the movie was released on this day in 1985.)
In practically every sense of the word, I grew up in the 1980s: I turned 10 the year they began, when the Empire struck back and Tom Hanks cross-dressed on television. In 1989 I saw Robin Williams make studying poetry rock, graduated from high school, started college, listened to the Cure disintegrate and turned 19. The popular culture of that decade is as addicting to me as a two-pound bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a two-liter of Coke Classic.
And yet when recently I started to make a list of 1980s movies I hadn’t seen – from the ones that invariably have my friends going, “Whaaat? Seriously??” to others that I just remember from theater previews or black-and-white newspaper ads – I was stunned at how quickly the list grew.
So here I am, at the first of (hopefully) a regular series of reviews and reactions to Eighties Movies I’ve Never Seen Until Now. (2012 note: How’d that work out? Not so hot. Although I did write about seeing Tron for the first time in 2010.)
Oddly enough, the first movie I’m writing about wasn’t even on my list. I just happened to notice it on the library DVD shelves while looking for others: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
(Go ahead: “Whaaat? Seriously??”)
I was 14 when this movie came out in summer 1985, and though I knew who Pee-wee Herman was, at that point I’d never seen the cable comedy special that launched the character and Paul Reubens into popularity.
My only lasting impressions of the character come from a few years later when I was working at Children’s Palace, a massive toy store and one-time rival of Toys R Us, and for at least one Christmas, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” toys Were. The. Shit. I remember parents combing through the action figures on their pegs, disappointed at finding only King of Cartoons and Magic Screen hanging there by the dozen. And it seemed like about five minutes later, the clearance aisle was stacked with stuffed Chairys and Pterris marked down and gathering dust.
Of course I know enough about the movie to get references to the “Tequila” bar dance or Large Marge or Being A Loner, Dottie; A Rebel, but I’ll confess this: I never “got” Pee-wee. He was goofy, yeah, but with an oddly adult edge to the humor sometimes. (And that made the whole transition into an actual children’s show even more puzzling to me.) Was he supposed to be a kid, and this was his imagination, like Calvin & Hobbes or what? But … but … he lived in a HOUSE, right? By himself? And – oh, crap, I give up. He was amusing, I suppose, but he never really got me howling.
That out-of-whack feeling came flying back during the Big Adventure opening scenes, from Pee-wee’s Tour de France dream through his morning routine. Who IS this guy? What WORLD does he live in? But … but … but…
It faded soon enough, since Burton’s created a great screen environment to just look at, and he jumps into the Quest for Bike story pretty quickly. Once that’s underway – after the overlong “evidence presentation” scene – the Big Adventure scoots along nicely as basically a series of place sketches.
That’s not a bad thing: It worked for me. In fact, I’m not sure another director could have made this movie from the script by Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol and pulled it off. The story’s jumps and turns and holes and skips would be roadblocks in any other environment, but this is a Pee-wee Herman movie with Tim Burton at the wheel and that’s pretty much the catch-all answer to any “What the-” moment that comes along.
I was genuinely surprised by the freakish darkness of the nightmare scene with the evil clown ambulance crew – I mean, it’s a Tim Burton movie, so I expected that twisted, off-kilter feeling in a lot of places, but man, that scene is just damn creepy, and I wonder how it played back in ’85 when Pee-wee was weird, all right, but still mostly crayon bright and Silly Putty-scented. (Francis Buxton in the Satan costume, though? That took me straight to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, even though Pee-wee beat that one by a couple years.)
Big Adventure didn’t get more than a few out-loud chuckles out of me, though it might have had I seen it at age 14 with a few friends. It still earned a healthy share of smiles – Pee-wee rescuing the snakes, for some reason, is making me chuckle right now in recollection; and as a huge fan of Airplane! I loved that the electric golf carts are given motorcycle engine sound effects during the ending chase.
I enjoyed it: Visually, there’s always something to check out, even during the few slow spots; it was easy to root for Pee-wee; the plot never felt frustrating or manipulative, and even though the happy ending is pretty much a given from the start, Burton and the writers made the ride unpredictable, fun and worthwhile.