Monday, August 09, 2010
By Adam Ross
"Everyone has a 'big but' Simone...let's talk about your 'big but.'"
Even though it was helmed by a first-time director and based on a property most people knew as an off-Broadway show, there is no "but" when discussing the legacy of 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Though well-received upon its release, Pee-wee's Big Adventure is one of the rare movies whose reputation seems to grow with each passing year, and its place as one of the finest comedies of the 1980s now seems bulletproof. Countless other films from the '80s displayed a painfully obvious born-on date even when the '90s approached, but Pee-wee's Big Adventure has enjoyed a Teflon-coated ride in that respect. Its prolific shelf life can be credited to the big screen debut of director Tim Burton's dream warp visuals, wrapped around a structure and sensibility rooted in the best comedic works of Preston Sturges. On the 25th anniversary of its release, Pee-wee's can be seen as a tribute to the magic of a Hollywood that today may only exist in the imaginations of dreamers such as Pee-wee.
Pee-wee's was my second real movie obsession (after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was the first movie I saw on VHS), and I was immediately pulled into the strange world created by Paul Reubens and Burton. Looking at the pairing of those two now, it's easy to see why their shared enthusiasm of child-like imagery and humor produced a movie that could entertain young and old alike. As a child, I was fascinated by how Pee-wee seemingly had it all: a zoo of toys, a house full of gadgets, a free spirit to wander wherever he wanted, while living in a town where almost everyone knew and adored him. Now I'm more entertained by the world it takes place in, where jokes about getting a new brain as a birthday present or nightmares about menacing clown doctors actually work and don't seem out of place.
The plot of the movie is pretty well described by the title. Pee-wee needs to find his stolen bicycle, but since he's never too urgent in his searches, we all come along for what becomes a ride through various strange setpieces and joke setups. Scenes such as the mishap at the biker bar or Pee-wee's try at the rodeo feel more like standalone sketches, but credit Burton for making everything flow together nicely.
The pool of young creative talent at the helm is almost staggering to look at now, with composer Danny Elfman and future Saturday Night Live patriarch Phil Hartman in addition to Reubens and Burton. Outside of Reubens, Elfman was the most well-known at the time, with several years of performances in the eclectic band The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo behind him, as well as scoring the odd and ill-received Forbidden Zone (directed by his brother, Richard). Elfman's memorable score starts on the Warner Bros. logo and pretty much never stops until the final credit rolls by. The theme most people associate with the movie, "Breakfast Machine," replicates the kind of maniacal humor on the screen and almost seems like the sort of music Pee-wee himself would listen to.
Since the movie was based on the character of Pee-wee and not his stage show, Reubens and the other writers were free to create an entirely new slate of supporting characters. It's this strange parade of supporting characters that help carry Pee-wee's Big Adventure above merely being a quest for a missing bicycle. Details such as the Buxton family's monogrammed jumpsuits, Mario the Magician's eagerness to please his customers, and, of course, Large Marge's ghost story, ensure the movie's humor is constantly stretched in unpredictable directions.
You can't talk about the movie without talking about Large Marge. Together with Pee-wee's two nightmares, the genuine terror produced during the short time in that semi-truck is what etched the movie in many children's memories. I used to dread the payoff of Large Marge's ghost story, but at the same time couldn't turn away. Maybe what kept me from fast-forwarding through that scene so many times was that Pee-wee had to sit right next to Large Marge during her ghost story, and he always got out of the truck safe and sound. That scene was probably my introduction to horror movies, and you could argue there's more fright in that semi-truck than you can find in most recent big screen horror releases.
The final act is where the movie seals its classic status. The stolen bicycle plot was reportedly inspired after Reubens spent time on the Warner Bros lot, where he noticed the large number of employees who got around on two wheels. With this in mind, it's easy to imagine the climax of the film coming together in Reubens' head: Pee-wee as the clumsy newcomer to Warner Bros, just as Reubens was at one point. There are so many jokes going on in the foreground and background of the Warner Bros. lot scenes that it's easy to spot new ones even after multiple viewings (I still think young Jason Hervey's turn as the awful child actor is the funniest bit of the whole movie). By this point the movie has so much momentum that it doesn't even blink when presenting a wild chase sequence, combining It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with The Road Warrior. Racing through multiple sound stages, Burton shows us a Hollywood where every genre of movie is being made at once, from Japanese monster flicks to timid beach party fare. When he lands safely on his bike and gives the thumbs up to a group of wide-eyed kids (bringing it full circle from his bike ride in the first act), it's hard not to giggle just a little like Pee-wee.
Of course, Burton still has another ace up his sleeve by showing us the Hollywood version of Pee-wee's story, with James Brolin in the title role and Morgan Fairchild as the love interest. With Pee-wee himself reduced to playing an over-dubbed bellhop with one throwaway line, the movie's final line becomes its overarching joke: "I don't need to watch it, I lived it."
Adam Ross wrote the movie blog DVD Panache from 2005 to 2009. He is currently a U.S. Army broadcast journalist stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas and leaves next week for a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. We all wish him well and a safe return to blogging.