Imagine a time way, way back, when Tim Burton wasn’t considered a joke by most film enthusiasts. He had his whole career ahead of him, and he had just been picked by off-the-wall children show host Paul Reubens to make a film adaptation of his show, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” (Reubens, similarly, had his whole career ahead of him, before becoming the receiving end of a ‘masturbation-in-an-adult-theater’ scandal.) Two off-the-wall artists putting heads together with one another. Why, anything could happen.
“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is a lot like any other comedy, especially of of an absurdist, crazy nature- some jokes work, some don’t. Unhinged man-boy and inventor extraordinaire/ idiot savant (some people might shorten that uncharitably to ‘retard’) Pee-Wee Herman (Reubens) is too obtuse to note his friend Dottie (Elizabeth Daily)’s affection for him. In fact, Pee-Wee can’t see the forest for the trees- the main tree in question being his much adored bicycle.
Naturally, Pee-Wee is distraught when Francis (Mark Holton,) resident spoiled brat and privileged heir, steals the bicycle for himself. The fact that Pee-Wee is almost as much of a self-centered infantile brat as Francis is beside to point as far as the viewer’s loyalties are concerned- the bike is Pee-Wee’s, and no one loves it as much as he does. For Francis it would be just another addition to his massive collection of expensive shit.
Anyway, unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Francis that stole the bike, Pee-Wee heeds the rants of a deceitful fortune teller and goes on a wild goose chase looking for his treasure. Along the way he meets lots of interesting (i.e. bizarre) people and gets himself embroiled in myriad weird encounters, in what seems more like a series of comedic vignettes than an actual movie.
The movie gives Reubens a chance to get in touch with his not-so-deeply inner spastic nut, and for Burton to place him in a world where nobody acts quite like they should. Reubens is unleashed on the set like a kid in a ball pit, and this is not one of those cases where the actor bends to the will of the set- the set bends to the will of Pee-Wee, with lots of destruction and mayhem in the process.
Basically, you’ll either think Pee-Wee’s endearing and funny or you’ll want to cram plastic packing peanuts down his throat until he chokes to death (take that, funny man!) As for me, I wanted to scratch my retinas out for the first two minutes, then I settled down and enjoyed the movie- let me tell you, it was quite a ride! At it’s worst this movie is self-indulgent, with comic sequences that go on for far too long and Reubens ferociously chewing the scenery. At it’s best, it’s quite funny, even cute and charming, like Reubens’ particularly bufoonish brand of physical comedy.
I think it makes people happy to see a trickster character, kind of a developmentally deficient Brier Rabbit, who acts totally out of line to the point of criminal offense and gets away physically and spiritually in one piece, his tomfoolery unfettered by human cynicism and codes of proper social behavior.
In real life, a guy like Pee-Wee would get beat up all the way to the bus stop for special kids, so it’s kind of nice to see a shameless man-child who makes no effort to conform to others’ expectations for him get ahead for once. It makes the world seem a little less mean, even through the lens of fiction.
“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is definitely an out-there movie, set in a film universe subtly but drastically unlike our own (for one thing, it’s a world where someone like Pee-Wee could receive positive female attention other than abject pity.) There’s a handful of really funny moments, such as Pee-Wee’s act of heroism in the burning pet store (the way he revoltedly rescued the snakes last cracked me up.)
Basically, you don’t mind the character than Reubens has created, annoying affectations and all, you might like this movie. If you think Pee-Wee Herman is funny, you might love this movie. I didn’t love it, but my appreciation for absurd humor left me enjoying the gags, even when they fell a little… well, flat? All I can say is I’ve warmed up to Pee-Wee, which is more than I can say for many similarly infantile characters. A modest win.