In some ways, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a work of genial comic brilliance that may never be replicated. Think about it: it caught Paul Reubens in his prime, hot off the success of his Broadway shows, had a young Tim Burton who was working to prove his craft to studios in order to elevate what would become a reliable visual brand, and the combination of a fully realized idea and the details necessary for a meticulous world. Like that, the perfect storm led to one of the most original comedies of the 1980s. It also helped established that Reubens’ iconic character was able to transcend the stage to the screen with ease, ushering in a television series and a lot of playful commercials and skits that cemented a legacy.
There’s a reason that when people talk about Pee-wee Herman, many are quick to downplay Big Top Pee-wee and in a way that’s too bad. Like the famously maligned Ghostbusters II, it had the burden of high expectations and a lot of production/crew changes that led to its quality being compromised. Burton didn’t return for the second Pee-wee adventure and Randal Kleiser (Grease) is no Burton visually nor does he ever assert a style to make up for such a glaring absence. Although Danny Elfman scores the music as he did in Big Adventure, nit-picky licensing agreements prevented him, Reubens, and co-writer George McGrath from using any themes from that particular film.
As such, Big Top Pee-wee had to try something totally different and the result is an interesting, if underwhelming, disappointment that catapults Pee-wee into the real-world with mixed results. In Big Adventure – and even Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which was into its third season by this point – Burton and Reubens worked jointly to conceive a world Pee-wee could inhabit and where logic and rationality could be momentarily (but not gratuitously) discarded in favor of something larger, more spectacular. In Big Top Pee-wee, Pee-wee has to associate with some plain characters that don’t share his same level of gravity and imagination. It’s difficult for anyone to work next to a wooden Kris Kristofferson for much of the film, and sometimes the contrast shows how hard Reubens is trying to make it all work.
The effort is admirable but the flaws are too noticeable to ignore. The story picks up on Pee-wee, who is living in a small town of grumps and working class people who have no time for our man-child’s shenanigans. He mainly keeps to himself on a farm where cows, horses, and chickens serve as his most loyal companions; a pig named Vance also stays close by his side and shares Pee-wee’s affinity for experimenting with new seeds that grow trees that sprout hot dogs and the like.
A doozy of a storm blows through the sleepy Western town and brings a circus with it, led by a ringmaster played by Kris Kristofferson and his two-inch wife, played by Susan Tyrrell. The couple are struggling when it comes to outsourcing acts, but Pee-wee believes he can liven it up by being a jack of all trades. They come up with the idea to appeal to the masses by hosting a three-ring act that incorporates Pee-wee’s farm.
Also new to the picture is Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller), Pee-wee’s fiancee, whom accompanies him for lunch every weekday with egg-salad sandwiches, something he loathes but won’t let disturb his undying love for her. Despite such powerful feelings for Winnie, Pee-wee catches his eye wandering when a trapeze artist named Gina (Valeria Golino) begins to assert herself and her role in the circus, making it difficult for Pee-wee to ignore her.
Such inclusions feel strange for a film starring Reubens’ infectiously silly character. You have moments of infidelity, some thoroughly ugly caricatures serving as townspeople, an awkward, minute-long kiss that feels like it was cut and pasted from a different film, and a lot of uneven, real-world humor that doesn’t mesh with the titular character. There is one instance involving a miserable shopowner and his encounter with Pee-wee, who is simply requesting a cheese sandwich, that is absolutely hilarious despite the man’s strange contempt for the genial soul. Nonetheless, it’s a perfect iteration of comic contrast that would’ve saved Big Top Pee-wee if the formula had been employed more prolifically.
But Big Top Pee-wee gets stuck on auto-pilot, and the circus setpieces and its characters never transcend decorations into being lively inclusions in a film that should have no visual or comic boundaries. It seems like Kristofferson, Tyrrell, and Golino are unsure how to operate in the world, and that leaves them at the mercy of Reubens, who prances around in hopes to keep whatever energy has been conjured up sustainable for a slight 80 minutes. Put simply, it doesn’t work thanks to obscure choices in tone, but a few good moments with Pee-wee are better than no good moments with Pee-wee, even if the sum of the film doesn’t come close to matching its potential.
NOTE: As of this writing, Big Top Pee-wee is streaming on MGM+.
Starring: Paul Reubens, Kris Kristofferson, Penelope Ann Miller, Susan Tyrell, and Valeria Golino. Directed by: Randal Kleiser.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!