Nathan: Re-watching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I was surprised by how long it takes the film to put Pee-wee on the road, because in my memory—and this is a film I’ve seen over a dozen times—Pee-wee loses his bike, and then he’s immediately thumbing a ride out of town. In actuality, the film spends a full act meticulously fleshing out Pee-wee’s hometown world, but it feels like such quintessential road movie that it can be easy to forget just how much time is spent at home. Part of the genius of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is that it’s simultaneously a great road movie and an affectionate spoof of one, inhabited by archetypes so comically outsized that they veer into loving parody: the singing hobo, the menacing biker gang (who all turn out to be softies in love with the art of dance), the daydreaming small-town waitress, and the escaped convict with a heart of gold. These are all characters we’ve seen before, but seldom embodied with such delight or such joyous imagination. Burton and company take all these dusty, crusty old types, shine them up, and make them sparkle like new.
Scott: You make a great point, Nathan, about how Pee-wee’s Big Adventure puts its own twist on hidebound road-movie clichés. One of the things I like about the movie is how Pee-wee gets himself into sticky situations—hitchhiking with a fugitive, knocking over the bikes at the bar, etc.—but manages to win everyone over without having to change a bit. That separates it from future Burton films, which tend to isolate eccentrics from the conformist forces of society at large—for all its virtues, Edward Scissorhands drowns in self-pity—and separates it also from other films about man-children, which usually force them to grow up in the third act. Here, the road-movie format gives Paul Reubens and Burton the greatest possible freedom to put Pee-wee in different comic situations, from a rodeo in Texas (“The stars at night/Are big and bright...”) to a Hollywood studio lot and everywhere in between. And with all that mixed company, our hero still wins everybody over. Except for Simone’s boyfriend Andy, who wants to beat him with a dinosaur bone.
Matt: Scott’s observation is a good one, and makes me realize just how many Burton films are thinly veiled variations on road movies about strangers’ journeys through strange lands. (Beetlejuice, Planet Of The Apes, Dark Shadows, and Alice In Wonderland just to name a few off the top of my head.) Pee-wee certainly fits in with the rest in that regard, but it’s significantly lighter in tone, a credit to Reubens’ influence on the character and his contribution to the screenplay. The combination of Burton’s gothic imagery and Reubens’ surreal comedy is so appealing, it’s a shame that they never collaborated again beyond a couple of cameos and voice roles in stop-motion animated movies. Their aesthetics blend together well.
Nathan: As I write in my keynote, the road movie perfectly suits an animation director who had made two short solo films (“Vincent” and “Frankenweenie”), but was also used to working on movies on a scene-by-scene basis, and two screenwriters, Reubens and Phil Hartman (alongside Michael Varhol), who had come up in the Groundlings and were used to working in the sketch format. It provides an excuse for lots of five-minute, standalone sequences that don’t necessarily have to feed the main narrative, but generally do. The road movie lends itself beautifully to random wackiness while providing each episode with its own beginning, middle, and end. After all, every journey has to start somewhere and end somewhere, and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure finds the beauty and the joy in chronicling all the crazy stuff that happens in between.
Mike: One of my favorite road-movie tropes is the bit that finds someone driving alone (or with sleeping passengers) in the middle of the night and trying desperately to stay awake. John Candy bopping along with Ray Charles in Planes, Trains And Automobiles remains my favorite, but Pee-wee’s Big Adventure pulls off a wonderfully creative version—making the best of the film’s tiny budget—in which Pee-wee negotiates a series of increasingly ludicrous hairpin turns, each one marked by an equally zany road sign. And I don’t know about you guys, but for me, that’s the sign that taught me about aspect ratios, because the original home-video release, back in the ’80s, got from 1.85:1 to the TV ratio by simply opening up the matte, unaware that Burton had failed to protect the top and bottom of the frame. On those video copies, you can clearly see that the car isn’t moving and that the road signs are moving past it on a track. (There’s a similar glitch involving the endless bicycle chain, which can be seen coming up through a hole in the bottom of the basket.) As a teenager, I knew this was a mistake, but I didn’t understand how it had happened; looking into it opened up a new world for me in the days before everything was letterboxed.
Matt: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out in 1985; I was 4 years old. Though I loved it as a kid, this was the first time I revisited the film in at least 15 years. What struck me most about it in 2014 were all the things that didn’t strike me in 1985. Back then, I didn’t even bat an eyelash at insane concepts like Pee-wee’s aquarium window, or his Batman-esque clothes-changing pole, or the way he carried on a long conversation with his breakfast, made by an enormous Rube Goldberg-style contraption.
I think the world of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is designed by Reubens and Burton to represent a child’s ideal vision of adulthood. Pee-wee has no parents, no job, and no responsibilities. He’s free to crack silly jokes, goof off, get into adventures, make new friends, and finally get revenge on the snooty neighborhood brat. To a child, all that craziness seems perfectly logical: Of course you’d chase your bicycle across the entire continental U.S. if it got lost. What could possibly be more important than getting back your beloved bike?
Scott: I like that the question of how Pee-wee gets his money or where he’s employed—or who his family members are or how he’s connected at all to anyone outside his man-child idyll—is left off the table. And I don’t think it’s that disturbing to see this grown man filling his life with all these whimsical rituals and gadgets, either. Part of the pleasure of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure—and this is a function of the road-movie aspect, too—is that PW is unburdened by adult responsibilities and able to set off on a cross-country quest to find his bike. And Large Marge aside, that quest isn’t full of danger and menace, but entirely transformed by his way of seeing things. I’m grateful the film doesn’t press him to grow up, either. What a bummer it would have been to see Pee-wee become an adult in the third act rather than gathering with his friends at the drive-in to see his story transformed into Hollywood spectacle. He grows up enough to let Dottie into his life a little more. That’s enough.
Nathan: Scott, I too love that the film doesn’t push a maturation arc on a character who doesn’t need one, in part because the world of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one where you don’t have to grow up or be burdened by the responsibilities of adulthood to have an awesome life. Pee-wee is a cartoon character, ultimately, and he doesn’t need to learn important life lessons any more than Bugs Bunny does: He doesn’t have to change to suit a world so ideally suited to him and his eternal pre-adolescence. I fell in love with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as a child; it’s one of those films that got me hooked on movies. I dimly recall being delighted to hear the stupid jokes and gags beloved by children everywhere being delivered by grown men—particularly “I know you are but what am I?,” which is the bane of children and parents everywhere, but when filtered through Pee-wee’s wondrous sensibility, suddenly seems fresh and funny and new.
Here’s a question for everyone: Why isn’t the film’s take on man-childhood creepier, especially given Reubens’ post-Adventure infamy? Is it because it’s shot through with such genuine innocence? Or is there more to it than that?
Mike: Because I saw Pee-wee’s Big Adventure many times during its initial run (I was working at a multiplex when it opened), Reubens’ arrest for indecent exposure never retroactively tarnished it for me. I’d always accepted that Pee-wee is a 10 year old (roughly) who happens to exist in the body of an adult; the idea that his behavior was somehow deviant never even occurred to me, frankly, and it was easy for me to separate the character from the actor when the mug shot appeared. I think it helps that Reubens, like Matthew Broderick, has a perpetually youthful appearance—they both still look vaguely unformed, even today.
One thing we haven’t yet discussed is the non-Burton sequel, Big Top Pee-wee. I haven’t seen it since 1988, but I remember it as a near-total failure—mostly because Randal Kleiser is about as far from Tim Burton as it’s possible to get, but also precisely because the movie tries to turn Pee-wee into something closer to a normal adult, giving him a job, a fiancée, conventional romantic desire, etc. The Pee-wee of Big Adventure, alone with Simone, only wanted to help her with her “big but”; it’s when he starts lusting after a Simone equivalent (played by Valeria Golino) that his fragile, solipsistic bubble bursts and creepiness sets in.
Scott: We’re guilty of having an auteurist slant here at The Dissolve: We talk about directors as the authors of their film. And I know I’m not alone among us in considering this film, Tim Burton’s debut, to be his best. But how much of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure can be credited to Burton and how much to Paul Reubens, who conceived the character, co-wrote the script, and stars in the title role?
Or maybe that’s the wrong question. Burton’s background in animation, his love for eccentric outsiders, and his sense of comic construction turns out to be perfectly compatible with Reubens’ cartoon-y conception of an an eccentric outsider who makes his breakfast with a Rube Goldberg device. And we can see what happened when a less compatible (and less talented) filmmaker like Kleiser worked with Reubens on Big Top Pee-wee, a sequel that owes its fitful amusements entirely to Reubens’ invention. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Burton realizing the Large Marge sequence, for example, and the deftness with which the director handles sequences both big (like the tour through a Hollywood backlot) and small (like the procession of bicycles that taunt PW after his own goes missing) is a great feat of direction. But the whimsical spirit of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure starts with Reubens and his interaction with the candy-colored world he creates, sustained years later when Reubens brought Pee-wee to Saturday morning television. What about you guys? What do you see as the balance of power here?
Mike: Burton may well have been the first auteur I recognized on my own: I vividly remember seeing Beetlejuice (at a time when I was only just starting to pay attention to directors) and immediately recognizing it as the work of the man who made Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. (Got me very excited for Batman, which I waited 12 hours in line to see on opening night; it was an all-day parking-lot tailgate party with two dozen friends.) And I do think Burton’s sensibility is the movie’s primary strength, as I’ve never really cottoned to Pee-wee Herman in any other context, including Pee-wee’s Playhouse. But there was clearly some amazing alchemy at work here, and I’ve always wondered how much Phil Hartman contributed to the script—some of the goofier bits, like Pee-wee’s rescue of the pet shop animals (culminating with the detested snakes), feel a lot like the oddball Hartman sketches that would sometimes air between midnight and 12:30 on Saturday Night Live.
Also, I’d argue that Danny Elfman’s contribution to the film is as crucial as anybody else’s. But I’ll be making that case in detail tomorrow.
Nathan: Burton is definitely the driving force behind Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which exhibits the kind of meticulous filmmaking that is storyboarded and planned diligently in advance, but not at the expense of speed or momentum. On the contrary, that meticulousness adds to the sense that the film is speeding a thousand miles per hour down the road, yet knows exactly where it’s headed at all times. I agree with Mike that Elfman’s contributions are hard to overstate, but Pee-wee’s Big Adventure also benefits from a fantastic script that plays to Burton’s gifts as an animator and Reubens’ as a sketch-comedy alum. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure captures three titanic forces—Reubens, Elfman, Burton—at the very beginning of their film careers, which I think helps explain the film’s freshness and energy; it’s a very young movie from young guys bursting with ambition and talent.
Matt: I’ll go to bat for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which was another childhood favorite, but Big Adventure is clearly the filet of the Pee-wee franchise. As I said earlier in our discussion, the collision of Burton and Reubens’ aesthetics is a big part of what makes the movie so uniquely entertaining. Both Burton and Reubens are talented guys who’ve made great stuff on their own, but they’re even better together. Obviously Elfman is another key contributor, but I’ll single out one more person we haven’t mentioned yet: production designer and art director David L. Snyder. When we describe the look of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, we talk about the stuff littering the frame as much as the individual shots, and Snyder deserves a lot of the credit for curating all that fabulously weird junk.
Nathan: I share your fondness for Pee-wee’s Playhouse and see it as an extension of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, particularly the scenes in Pee-wee’s home, which, as wonderful and whimsical as it is, plays like something of a rough draft for the justly famous set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Mike: Unlike most first-time filmmakers nowadays, Tim Burton had already spent a lot of time on a studio lot, working unhappily as a Disney animator. And if you listen to the audio commentary track he and Paul Reubens recorded for the DVD (also on the Blu-ray release), you can hear how excited he was to indulge in some Hollywood nostalgia for the movie’s lengthy finale, in which Pee-wee sneaks onto the Warner Bros. lot and engages in mayhem across multiple sound stages. “We got to actually make it seem like a real movie studio,” Burton says at one point, by which he presumably means that the days when you could find an orphanage drama, a beach comedy, a Christmas movie, and a Japanese monster flick shooting simultaneously on a single lot were already long gone. (The Twisted Sister music video seems more accurate.) But that loving homage to the dream factory perfectly complements Pee-wee’s fantastical existence. Indeed, his own home resembles a child’s conception of what a movie studio might look like, with fun props strewn everywhere.
At the same time, the movie pokes gentle fun at the reality of Hollywood. The goofy golf carts used by studio security to chase Pee-wee really are ubiquitous—I’ve ridden in one myself, when I dated a woman who worked at Paramount—and the bit in which an obnoxious child star abuses the adult actors, as well as his director, suggests that somebody involved with the movie had some experience in that realm. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure recognizes that Hollywood is ridiculous but loves it anyway, and that’s precisely the sensibility that makes it such an unparalleled delight.
Nathan: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure lovingly skewers a Hollywood that long ago ceased to exist, as well as a Hollywood that never existed beyond the imaginations of children and filmmakers like Burton and Reubens, where everything awesome and cheesy about the sum of international cinema through the decades somehow occupies the same space and the same soundstage. The movie is meta before the phrase became a meaningless buzzword, right down to a finale that hilariously distorts everything that has come before, ratcheting up the artificiality of everything that precedes it to surreal levels. And then there’s one of my favorite gags in the film: Pee-wee’s hilariously awful performance in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. He’s a glorified extra but I couldn’t take my eyes off him, which is precisely the point.
Scott: I’m glad you put the word “lovingly” before “skewers,” Nathan, or else I’d have to object. There’s nothing at all skewering about the backlot chase, which tours the Hollywood dream factory—a dream factory that doesn’t exist now, if it ever did, but toward which Burton has great affection. There’s no acid, either, in watching the big-screen adaptation of Pee-wee’s story, just a gentle acknowledgment that Hollywood distorts everything that it touches, even a biopic about an adventurer as whimsical as PW. Pee-wee’s cameo is one of my favorite moments in the movie—“Paging Mr. Herman. Mr. Herman, you have a telephone call”—because his one line has been tinkered with so dramatically, yet I don’t feel like the film treats these distortions with contempt at all. On the contrary, it considers the tacky mythologizing of converting real life into fiction with a lot of affection. After all, Pee-wee himself can attest to its fundamental verity of James Brolin on a moped: “I don’t have to see it, Dottie. I lived it.”
Nathan: Definitely. For all its intermittent scariness, there’s nothing remotely mean-spirited or sour about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and its attitude toward Hollywood and show-business is one of wide-eyed, child-like wonder rather than cynicism or contempt. Even Warner Bros. comes out all right in the end; after all, the studio gave Pee-wee his bike back and let him invite all his friends to the big première of his movie, even the ones in prison.
Nathan: One of my favorite running gags in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the incredible look of irritation Reubens sports throughout the film whenever he encounters a setback. It’s the look of a boy who has been thwarted in his desires and can barely conceal the soul-rattling frustration.This is most pronounced during the wonderful scene in the Alamo where the tour guide played by Jan Hooks (who ad-libbed all her lines) boasts the plastic smile of someone who could go on happily prattling on nonsense for the rest of eternity if given a chance, and Reubens looks like his brain will explode unless he’s led to the basement of the Alamo that very second. I also love the very Bugs Bunny way that Pee-wee happily volunteers to dress in drag at the roadblock and is in no hurry to get out of drag once they make it through the roadblock. And let’s hear if for the film’s casting director, who found a gallery of singularly ugly mugs as crazy and cartoonish-looking as anything found in animation. What have we not yet discussed that you love about this utter delight?
Scott: If we’re just ticking off favorite moments, I have a few: Hooks’ Alamo tour is a delight through and through, but the line, “Do we have any Mexican-Americans with us today? Well, ‘buenos dias!’” makes me particularly happy. I also love the exchanges between Pee-wee and his arch nemesis Francis, especially that first battery of childish invective. (“Shhh… I’m listening to reason.”) The scene where Pee-wee gathers the community together for an endless, exhibit-filled inquisition into his stolen bike is full of memorable lines, from “Is this something you can share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry?” to the demented hiccup of “And knitting… a-a-a-nd knitting… a-a-a-nd knitting,” which has become one of my real-life stock expressions. But I could cite dozens of equally funny examples. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is second only to Duck Soup in my pantheon of favorite screen comedies, and it never fails to cheer me up, even though I know every frame of it by now. I know others, too, who consider it an all-time great comedy, but it’s never officially part of that conversation. What gives?
Nathan: Good question, Scott. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a well-loved cult movie, but I suspect it’s not generally included in the pantheon of all-time comedy classics because of its inveterate lightness. Nothing about it broadcasts its significance or social importance, and I think the fact that Ruebens only made one great film counts against it as well. Reubens is not a Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, or Preston Sturges, with an extensive filmography of classics: He made one great movie that will be his enduring cinematic legacy, so it’s easy to see how he could be forgotten when it comes to discussions of the all-time greats.
Matt: For me, it’s all about the transcendent “Tequila” scene, which I obsessively imitated as a child (although I never quite nailed the pointe work), and the pet-store scene. It’s such a perfect series of gags, and a nice showcase of just what kind of person Pee-wee is: He’ll fearlessly run into a burning building over and over to rescue some helpless animals—except the snakes, because they’re really gross. But eventually he’ll toughen up and save them too (then run out screaming and faint on the sidewalk).
Nathan: Great. I see Amazing Larry whispering in the corner there. Is this something you’d like to share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry? No? Then thanks for participating everyone. See you next time.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote on how Burton and Reubens brought cartoon energy to their live-action film. Tomorrow, Mike D’Angelo looks at how Danny Elfman’s score tied their film together, and launched the composer’s career in the process.