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Tagline: You will believe a man can ride a bike.



Le Tour de France. Bicyclists racing through the French countryside. As we track with them, a bike rider in a grey suit and red bow tie pedals past them, accompanied by his trademarked giggle.


When I saw PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) in the theater (it was a sneak preview with NATIONAL LAMPOON'S EUROPEAN VACATION), I thought, wow, whoever this Tim Burton director feller is, I'm sure to love everything he directs. I was wrong. Besides PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (PBA, from here on in) and ED WOOD, I pretty much dislike everything Burton has done. Another thing I was wrong about, using the word "feller."
I probably thought "guy." That said, I'm pretty sure I liked PBA because of Pee-wee over Burton, though I do admit, Burton was a fantastic choice here.

Los Angeles Groundling improv group member Paul Reubens and his Pee-wee character were marginally famous for THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW, a one-off on HBO. But it was this movie that mainstreamed him...as much as Pee-wee could be mainstreamed. Pee-wee goes through life with an infectious and relentless happ-itude that makes us all jealous. Half man/half boy, in a funny (and at times mildly creepy...yet still funny) way, Pee-wee is unencumbered glee. He's the most lovable 98-pound (Don't believe me? When he hops on his scale, it stops at 98.) weakling around, and though he finds joy in just about anything, it's his bike that is his prize possession. His bike, hidden behind a secret motorized shrub accessible through a hidden button panel. Why, Pee-wee himself tells it, "you're the best bike in the whole world."



This movie is Pee-wee's A WIZARD OF OZ journey. Both movies even have sham (are there any other kind?) fortune tellers that go through the hero's possessions so they can lie to them. They also have small dogs, Toto and Speck, in bicycle baskets. There's even a moment where Simone, who he meets on his big adventure, gets to live out her dream, while Pee-wee stands, dejected, almost like he's going to ask the Wizard, "I don't think there's anything in that black bag for me." And instead of a horse of a different color, here we have a pink and a blue elephant. If you're still not sold, when Pee-wee rides his bike, composer Danny Elfman musically references OZ's Miss Gulch's bike riding theme. I wonder how PBA syncs up to DARK SIDE OF THE MOON.



So Pee-wee wakes from his dream of winning Le Tour de France, puts on his bunny slippers, plays with his toys, and makes breakfast using Rube Goldberg contraptions. And all the time, he's laughing and having fun. And so are we. Though I caution you, don't waste your time wondering why he goes through all that trouble when it's easier just to make breakfast the usual way. And don't question where Pee-wee gets the money to buy all that stuff, or for that matter, pay for his house - a house with a rocket ship and teepee in the front yard. Because this is Pee-wee's world. We just have fun in it.

Pee Wee Home

After visiting the magic shop and bike shop, where Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) works, Pee-wee walks down the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica (yep, there was indeed a Woolworth's there), and right into Act II: When Pee-wee sees that his bicycle has been stolen!
It's a funny sequence, played like a VERTIGO moment, assisted by the Hitchcock-y score courtesy of Elfman (who is a Bernard Hermann fan), as a parade of bikes torments our hero; a unicycle, kids on trikes, one of those 1800s bikes with the huge wheel in front and small wheel in back, a bicycle built for five.

The fun of Pee-wee is that he takes things from real life - sayings, props, you name it - and makes them his, often by not even changing a word....just being Pee-wee. All the kid stuff is here. When taking a tumble from his bike - "I meant to do that." The to and fro of "I know you are, but what am I?," capping it with "Infinity!" The mimicking of your rival's words just to piss him off. And then, there's riffs on other things, like the movie tropes of dreams and love. And Large Marge. ("Did you say...Large Marge?")

What also makes PBA so much fun is the script's ability to invent things and to go anywhere, like we're inside a child's mind. It can go from giant dinosaurs to rodeos to biker bars (though you'd have to be an advanced child for that one). It's at this bar where he performs his signature Pee-wee dance in clogs to The Champs' TEQUILA. Every time I see this movie, I find something else to make me laugh. This time, it was the scene with the hobo on the train, singing songs. At first, Pee-wee loves it, but as time goes by his joviality wanes, and soon, Pee-wee throws himself from the boxcar. I also lost it when he sneaks around the bus to see if Andy (a giant man who was chasing Pee-wee) is still nearby. He is, and when Pee-wee sees him, he jumps in a cartoon move that, well, obviously doesn't translate here in text. On the more subtle side, the way he almost kisses Dottie when they're in the Warners exec's office is hysterical. But nothing, at least on this go-round, comes close to when Pee-wee, in a movie within the movie, plays the role of a front desk clerk at a hotel. First, he's dubbed. Second, he's an awful (on purpose) actor. And third, those bad actor glances he steals into the camera.

Tim Burton's touches are all here, from the stop-motion dinosaur to Pee-wee's Dali-esque fever dream to Large Marge's face. To Godzilla riding in a sleigh. A lot of the production was thought up by Burton, little things like the bathroom window which is actually a fish tank to the elaborate breakfast-making machinations. Credit must also go to David Snyder, the production designer. I imagine this was a really fun movie to work on, even though with its budget, it must have been a bit of a nightmare, prop-wise.


Though repetitive, Elfman's score was a great match for the Burton/Pee-wee feel. He nailed the meld of childlike themes and circus-y time signatures. Themes that he'd elaborate on in his upcoming movies like BEETLEJUICE and BATMAN, and of course, THE SIMPSONS theme song.

Written by Reubens, Michael Varhol and the late and very great (and fellow Groundling) Phil Hartman, PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE was a hit, especially for such a small budget feature. It led to the wildly popular PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE TV show. And although he worked, and still works, Pee-wee is what Reubens is known for, what his fans love, want, and can't get enough of (in 2011, he did an L.A. and Broadway stint...at 55 years of age). Whether he likes this or not, he certainly is aware of it. Even in this 1985 movie, the name Paul Reubens doesn't exist. The credit is "Pee-wee Herman - Himself".


I have two friends who know Reubens, and I myself have spotted him lunching one day. But I don't want to meet him. I want Pee-wee to remain Pee-wee. A loner. A rebel.

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