I’ve long put off watching anything featuring the Pee-wee Herman character, basking in my own ignorance for what I thought would be the better option than subjecting myself to any great length of time with Paul Reubens’ alter-ego. From the small clips I’d seen of his two (now three) movies and beloved children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, I found little funny about the very idea, let alone execution, of a well-dressed man-child running around for any length of time. I found everything about him insufferable and actively avoided him.
Bob Dylan was really onto something when he alleged “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now” in his song “My Back Pages,” for that’s the best way I can describe my past feelings on Reubens’ recognizable character. After watching several episodes of Playhouse along with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which serves as Tim Burton’s directorial debut, I truly admire both Pee-wee and the tour-de-force performance Reubens gives when he dons the gray-suit getup. Several episodes into Playhouse (how I decided to preface my viewing of Pee-wee’s first film), I saw myself playing along with Pee-wee and the barrage of characters, some inanimate objects, others cameos played by the late Phil Hartman and even Laurence Fishburne.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, when viewed in the present, transports us back in the day when studios doled out a few million to a visionary filmmaker to create a spunky comedy. Burton’s treatment of Reubens’ cinematic debut is nothing short of gloriously daffy, as he’s committed to designing a world, imagined by cinematographer Victor J. Kemper and scored by Danny Elfman, that only Pee-wee could inhabit. He plays different beats than Playhouse, which followed Big Adventure a year later, and Playhouse played different beats than the character’s recurring Broadway show and appearances on David Letterman’s late-night program. The fluidity of Pee-wee Herman is one of his best traits.
The film revolves around Pee-wee’s quest to obtain his accessorized bicycle after it was stolen while parked outside a town square. Pee-wee initially suspects his wealthy, gluttonous neighbor Francis (Mark Holton) to have stolen his bike, but after his lead runs dry, he winds up wandering across the continental United States after a tip from a phony fortune-teller that his bike is in San Antonio. He organizes a search-party, offers up a $10,000 reward, hitches a ride with a fugitive (Judd Omen), and later, the ghost of a truck-driver known as “Large Marge (Alice Nunn).
A simple plot synopsis does not do this film justice in terms of the way it makes the most ordinary sequences come to life like the most gratuitously colorful blend of Andy Warhol-style pop-art. Burton and Kemper conceive not just a character and a story, but a world in which Pee-wee can inhabit, freeing him from the comfortable but admittedly constraining atmosphere of the playhouse where a talking chair and an alarm clock would go on to serve as his most loyal companions.
Having eccentric types like Mickey – who serves as a companion to one of the funniest things Pee-wee has ever done – Large Marge, and bike-shop employee Dottie (played by veteran voice-actor E.G. Daily) populate the screenplay allows Burton the ability to take the narrative (written by Reubens, Hartman, and Michael Varhol) and move it across a larger landscape. Not everything works out with flawless execution, for the darker moments in Large Marge’s truck (decorated by the Chiodo brothers of Killer Klowns fame) do their part to slow the brisk pace of the narrative down to a bit of a crawl, but so much remains a work of visionary brilliance. Burton was only 26 when he shot this film and already he was planting the seeds for a long, fruitful career that has since spanned four decades and seems to head into the fifth without any brakes.
Reubens also adjusts to the bigger scope of the project well, taking the next step from Broadway into the often nonlinear and broadly colored spectrum of 1980s excess. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure tops off by being a real triumph of creativity and total immersion, and Reubens convinces us that not only is he born to play a character as unique and as whimsical as Pee-wee, but he is capable of transcending the character beyond his comfort zones. The world is Pee-wee’s comfort zone, so it seems, and that world includes a stage, a playhouse, and an entire country.
NOTE: As of this writing, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is available to rent on a variety of platforms.
Starring: Paul Reubens, Judd Omen, Mark Holton, Alice Nunn, E.G. Daily, and Diane Salinger. Directed by: Tim Burton.
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!