Texan: What’s your name?
Pee Wee: I don’t remember.
Texan: Where are you from?
Pee Wee: I don’t remember.
Texan: Do you remember anything?
Pee Wee: I remember…the Alamo.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure has earned me plenty of strange looks in my time. In 1985, when it was released and I was ten, my family didn’t go to many movies. The only movies I can recall seeing around that time were Disney animated stuff and The Karate Kid. At home, the television wasn’t used much, so all I really watched was The A-Team or Knight Rider. I don’t think I discovered Pee-Wee until I discovered Tim Burton, which was when Mars Attacks! was released. Since I loved that movie so much, I quickly absorbed his other films. He is now one of my favorite directors, ranking right up there with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Woody Allen. I saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure for the first time on the Disney Channel, and like every Tim Burton movie, it was love at first sight. When I told family and friends that I had just seen it, they gave me strange looks, like I had said I spent ninety minutes watching a chimpanzee pick his nose. I think some of the strangest responses came from members of this site, when I mentioned that I was looking forward to the Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure DVD with more anticipation than any other more “deserving” film, such as Braveheart. My only concern was that Warner Brothers would mishandle it…
To appreciate Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, you must know a little of the history of the project, and of its primary participants, Paul Reubens and Tim Burton. In the late 1970s, Paul Reubens was a member of The Groundlings, an improvisational comedy troupe, along with other notables such as Phil Hartman and Conan O’Brien. One of the characters Reubens created was Pee-Wee Herman. Pee-Wee was an instant hit, and became something of an alter ego for Reubens — there was no separating the character and the man behind it. Pee-Wee appeared in an HBO special and was a regular on Late Night With David Letterman. Reubens and Groundlings buddy Phil Hartman wrote a screenplay featuring the character, and approached Warner Brothers to produce it. Enter Tim Burton. Burton took his life-long interest in drawing to the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied animation. His talents brought him to work at Disney in the tedious background animation department, where he worked on The Fox And The Hound. His superiors recognized his obvious talents, but could also clearly see that he was not suited to his current job, so they unleashed him on his own projects. This resulted in the short films Frankenweenie and the stop-motion animated Vincent (a tribute to his idol, Vincent Price). Someone at WB saw Vincent, showed it to Reubens, and he insisted that Burton direct the movie. It was a match made in movie heaven, and the rest is history.
After Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton went on to direct a string of crowd-pleasing movies — his next two films were Beetlejuice and the wildly successful Batman. Reubens went on to his own “children’s” show, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. However, the kid-friendly character would meet his end with Reuben’s infamous arrest in an adult movie theatre in 1991. Reubens’ career has never been the same. He’s continued to act, though mostly in supporting roles, the most memorable of which were as a vampiric lackey in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and as a flatulent superhero in Mystery Men. Burton has also kept him busy, with a cameo appearance in Batman Returns and as the voice of a devilish youngster in The Nightmare Before Christmas.
What is it about Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure that I find so appealing? Well, everything, but I can explain a little better than that. I love the feel of the movie. Pee-Wee and his friends are kids in the bodies of grown-ups. They’re part of the “real world,” yet they’re so far out of lockstep that they seem to exist in their own little microcosm. Burton and his crew gave Pee-Wee an environment where he seemed no less ordinary than the eggshell-white paint on my walls. Pee-Wee’s house has a firepole, giant-sized toothbrushes, statues of Abraham Lincoln, and Rube Goldbergian contraptions to make breakfast (and after all that work to make pancakes and eggs, what does Pee-Wee eat? Mr. T cereal!). Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure isn’t devoid of plot, but it doesn’t depend upon it like a “real” movie would. Instead, it’s merely a tool used to serve up inspired lunacy of every size and shape. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a movie that anyone can enjoy. Its humor will not escape children, while adults will revel in the devious aspects that will go right over the heads of the kiddies. The humor comes fast and furious, and in all shapes and sizes. There’s visual gags (such as Pee-Wee’s bunny slippers sniffing for a plastic carrot), sly innuendo (“The X-1 needs to cool down.” “I’m a little overheated myself.”), and Pee-Wee’s classic one-liners (“I don’t make monkeys, I only train them!”).
When events thrust Pee-Wee into the “real world,” he somehow manages to survive by his rules. The “event” of which I speak is the theft of Pee-Wee’s bicycle. Pee-Wee loves his bicycle like some men love their car, or I love my DVD player. When it disappears, his life is ruined. He must do anything to get it back, so he sets off on a cross-country trip to recover his bike. On his journey, he meets biker gangs, rodeo clowns, studio executives, escaped convicts, ghostly truck drivers, and all other manner of scary individuals. Warner Brothers buys his story and turns it into a movie-within-a-movie, starring James Brolin as “P.W.” and Morgan Fairchild as his love interest “Dottie,” and even featuring Pee-Wee in a dubbed “cameo” as a bellhop.
There’s an important part of the synergy that is Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure that I left out: the music score. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was the first full-length film scored by Danny Elfman. Elfman was a member of the group Oingo-Boingo, of which Burton was a huge fan. The score sounds like circus music shaken around in the subconscious of a clown from hell, and then played in the peppiest manner known to humankind. In other words, it matches the movie perfectly. Elfman is my favorite film composer, for the energy and quirkiness that he brings to the most emotion-affecting aspect of a movie. His score to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure ranks among his best, along with To Die For, Mars Attacks!, and Men In Black.
I was afraid that Warner Brothers would screw the pooch with their DVD release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. After all, it’s a catalog title, and a cult favorite at best. Never fear, it’s a fine release and a worthy addition to any collection. For the first time, it’s presented in widescreen (video releases presented an open-matte transfer, which revealed some goofs that shouldn’t have been seen). The DVD transfer is 1.85:1 anamorphic. It’s crisp and clear, though a tad grainy or oversaturated at points. Still though, it is very clean for a movie that is fifteen years old. Audio has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound mix tends to favor the score, perhaps a bit too loudly at times, for the music can drown out the dialogue. The surrounds are used mostly for the music, with occasional directional effects.
Extras consist of a commentary track featuring Tim Burton and Paul Reubens, an isolated music-only track with commentary by Danny Elfman, deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, production sketches, cast and crew biographies, and several textual areas dealing with the production. The Burton-Reubens commentary is surprisingly subdued for such lively, creative people. They reflect fondly upon the experience of making the film. The deleted scenes are the equal of anything in the film itself, but were cut to trim down the running time. Especially amusing is the extended version of the chase sequence on the Warner Brothers studio lot. The biographies are surprising detailed for a WB release, but you’ll notice that there’s not a bio for Paul Reubens…only for Pee-Wee Herman. Taken cynically, that could be construed as an attempt to hide his sordid past, but I would prefer to think that it was done in the nature of td score, and I feel it should be mandatory with any movie scred by Danny Elfman (hey Paramount, re-release A Simple Plan with a commentary track and an isolated score, and I promise I’ll buy a copy!).
After gushing about the movie for over 1,400 words, did you really think I’d have anything negative to say? Well, I wish WB would use sturdier packaging than the snapper case, because I’m sure I’ll watch this movie enough to break off the snap-tab.
How have I gone an entire review without saying “I know what you are but what am I?” or that something was hidden in the basement of the Alamo or that I know things you wouldn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t know? Why don’t you take a picture, it would last longer! Go ahead and scream…we’re miles from where anyone would hear you!
Buy it. Buy it. Buy it. BUY IT!