Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 1 release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

Made at the ridiculously precocious age of twenty-six, Tim Burton’s feature debut Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a complete one-off: although none of Burton’s subsequent films could exactly be called normal, this one is so far out of the loop that people either fall madly in love with it or scramble for the “off” button well before the first five minutes are up (as indeed a friend of mine did the first time I tried to watch it – fortunately, a few years later I lived with a Los Angeles native who thought it was the greatest film ever made, and when I finally saw the whole thing I’m not entirely sure she was that wide of the mark).

On paper, it sounds not only unwatchable but more than a little creepy – fully-grown adult Paul Reubens plays a ten-year-old by the name of Pee-Wee Herman, dressed as the ultimate teacher’s pet (neatly ironed grey suit, immaculate white shirt offset by a red bow tie) who lives a lifestyle not entirely removed from one that Viz’s Spoilt Bastard can only dream of – in his own house surrounded by every toy and gadget imaginable.

To make matters worse, he has a whiny, petulant voice punctuated at regular intervals with a faintly psychotic cackle, and he appears to be wearing make-up. Even if it wasn’t for Reubens’ much-publicised problem in the early 1990s (involving a porno cinema and… well, let’s just say the Scala Cinema programme note featuring Pee-Wee holding a bicycle horn and the tagline “Pee-Wee gets his horn out on Saturday” tells you all you need to know), it’s not immediately obvious that this is a particularly good role model for children.

But, weirdly enough, when he’s performing on screen instead of being critically dissected the Pee-Wee character actually works. He’s aggressively obnoxious, true, but so were Groucho Marx, W.C.Fields, Basil Fawlty and countless other comedy greats – and, like them, he manages to straddle the normally yawning divide between mindless slapstick and knowing wit that all truly great comedies need to achieve – and as a result, it’s that rare thing: a film that works beautifully for both audiences that it’s aimed at.

Children will love the gaudy colours, the general silliness and infantile one-liners, while adults will go for the rather more complex blend of popular cultural references (if you didn’t know that Burton had grown up watching Godzilla films, you could probably have guessed from this film alone!) and subtle asides: there are so many layers of irony in this film that this brief review can’t possibly hope to disentangle them all.

What’s particularly satisfying about Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is that Reubens managed to find a director whose eccentric visual style fully complemented his own comic persona. In retrospect, Tim Burton seems like an obvious choice – but back then he was a former Disney animator with just a couple of unclassifiably weird shorts (Vincent and Frankenweenie) to his name and had never made a feature. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for this film, who knows whether we’d have ever got to see Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands or the sublime Ed Wood?

The plot is simple: despite all his gadgets, Pee-Wee essentially lives only for his beloved bicycle, which of course pretty much guarantees that it’ll get stolen and that he’ll have to travel across America to get it back. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s essentially the same as that of Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves – but while that film is one of the most heartbreaking ever made, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is altogether more robust: in fact, this must be one of the weirdest comedies ever produced by a major Hollywood studio (it had a fairly low budget, which must have helped – because there was less pressure on it to be a hit, Reubens and Burton were free to go off in largely uncharted directions).

On the way Pee-Wee runs across escaped convicts, Hell’s Angels, battered wives, Japanese monsters (the proper man-in-a-rubber-suit kind; none of this new-fangled CGI rubbish) and the mysterious Large Marge, a ghostly female trucker who can do a neat trick with her eyeballs. Eventually, he tracks his bicycle down to the Warner Bros backlot, which leads to an epic chase through the sets of countless films (and Twisted Sister videos), and a triumphant climax in which the studio buys Pee-Wee’s story and turns it into a feature film, only with a few small changes: Pee-Wee is now played by a rugged hunk of testosterone-fuelled bearded masculinity, fending off hordes of ninja assassins while romancing voluptuous pneumatic blondes.

I’m not going to pretend that Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is anything other than deeply and incurably silly from beginning to end – but as with Burton’s best films, there’s a genuine pathos about it as well, which is all the more effective here for being so unexpected (there are loads of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them touches, such as the goldfish swimming past Pee-Wee’s bathroom window). And I have no doubt that this is largely Burton’s contribution, since the Burtonless sequel Big Top Pee-Wee was a pale shadow of its predecessor, with Pee-Wee himself coming across as being rather more annoying. Even today, it still comes across as being one of the best things that Burton ever did, and I’m delighted that Warner Bros clearly think so too, as they’ve made a real effort with the DVD.

Visually, it’s pretty much faultless: a lovely anamorphic transfer framed at the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio (Burton points out in the commentary that it was shown at 1.66:1 in European cinemas, which had the unfortunate side-effect of revealing the mechanics behind certain special effects!) that captures the film’s garish colour scheme to perfection, which is particularly important here, given that the overall design principle was “if it ain’t bright, it ain’t right”. By way of example, the scenes in the magic shop, with its strong red colour cast, looked hideous on VHS, but the DVD takes them in its stride, and I couldn’t spot any encoding defects.

The soundtrack has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, though this mostly benefits Danny Elfman’s score – there’s not much sign that the rest of the soundtrack has changed much since the Dolby Stereo original was released fifteen years earlier. That said, I’ve got no complaints – it’s not the sort of film that particularly needs a state-of-the-art multitrack sound mix, and the DVD’s sound is as good as I could reasonably have expected. There are 27 chapter stops, which is more than enough for a 90-minute film.

There’s a very nice set of extras that cover all the usual bases, linked by an appealing animated menu with Pee-Wee crashing his bicycle against the list of options and claiming that he meant to do that. I always like seeing the original trailer when the feature is as off-the-wall as this, and, sure enough, there’s a distinct air of “we’re not entirely sure how to sell this” about it.

Even if you usually ignore cast and crew biographies I recommend reading the one for Pee-Wee Herman (“Pee-Wee’s thrice married, thrice-divorced grandfather from the old country, Hermann Herman, lives in the attic of the Herman’s four-storey Victorian house with his 24-year-old girlfriend Hilda. They are the talk of the neighbourhood”). Sadly, the other biographies are much more conventional.

The meatier extras kick off with production designer David L Snyder taking us on a 12-minute journey through the storyboards and his designs, explaining his visual conception behind many of the key scenes as well as giving us an insight into what a production designer (almost certainly the most underrated of the major creative jobs on a film) actually does – particularly important in a film so heavily reliant on its overall look. The storyboards themselves are edited in time with Danny Elfman’s score.

A set of deleted scenes includes a bizarre, almost Lynchian floating toupée moment in the magic shop that introduces the character of Amazing Larry (who was subsequently reduced to a one-line reference); a scene where Pee-Wee has to share a car with Boone the Bear after his mishap at the rodeo (“Don’t mind Boone – he just loves people!”) and has a strange dream about him as a bicycling tight-rope rider; a scene in the hospital after his motorcycle accident where Pee-Wee is diagnosed with depression, but is visited by a load of Hell’s Angels to cheer him up, and – best of all – an extended chase around the Warner Bros backlot that reveals why he bought a boomerang bow tie earlier on in the film (this comes into play during an extended spaghetti Western take-off complete with Morricone score). These scenes were clearly taken from a timecoded VHS tape sourced from a much hacked-about workprint, and look pretty awful, but it’s nice to have had a chance to have seen them.

The first commentary track features Tim Burton, and it’s markedly better than the one on the Sleepy Hollow DVD, largely because he’s got Paul Reubens to bounce ideas and anecdotes off (Burton confesses that he’s “not the best communicator” at one point!). It’s fairly rambling and disjointed, but there’s a lot of good stuff in it if you dig deep: the two are obviously good friends in real life (indeed, Burton was the first to employ Reubens after his little spot of bother) – and they obviously still love the film, which isn’t that surprising given that they both owe their careers to it.

The second commentary track is devoted to Danny Elfman’s contribution, and features his score playing in isolation, with Elfman filling the gaps with a witty and intelligent monologue that covers his own CV, the background to the music and how he approached the scoring (it was his first major film-composing job, and he claims to have been terrified throughout, convinced that he would destroy the film!), and his major inspirations – composers as diverse as Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota and the great Warner Bros cartoon composer Carl Stalling, all of whom inspired this (I loved the way Elfman apologised to Herrmann after a particularly blatant Psycho rip-off!). This commentary is much more tightly-edited than its companion, probably because of the need to time it precisely to the gaps between the music cues.

All in all, this is a great DVD – and fans of the film will need no prompting to snap it up immediately. What with the standard being set by this and some other superb Burton special editions (Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes), is it too much to hope that Touchstone/Buena Vista will change their usual policy and give Ed Wood the special edition treatment it deserves? Or indeed release it at all?

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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