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Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

May 25th, 2008 · 8 Comments

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Waking from a dream in which he wins the Tour de France, Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) plays with a few toys, sets in motion an elaborate breakfast making machine and after a bite of Mr. T cereal, greets the day wearing a tight gray suit and red bowtie. His most prized possession is a fully loaded antique bicycle, which the wealthy and equally child-like Francis Buxton (Mark Holton) offers to buy. Pee-wee laughs at him. “I wouldn’t sell my bike for all the money in the world, not for a hundred billion million trillion dollars!”

Pee-wee pays a visit to Chuck’s Bike-o-Rama, where Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) has built an extra loud horn for his bike. Dottie asks him to go with her to the drive-in, but Pee-wee is interested in his bicycle and little else. “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.” When he goes outside, Pee-wee discovers his bike has been stolen. Desperate for clues, he approaches a fortune teller, who gets rid of him by claiming that the bicycle is at the Alamo, in the basement.

Hitchhiking his way to San Antonio, Pee-wee encounters an escaped felon (Judd Omen), the ghost of a dead trucker named Large Marge, a truck stop waitress (Diane Salinger) he convinces to pursue her dream of going to Paris, a boxcar hobo, a bar full of rowdy bikers and an annoying tour guide (Jan Hooks) who notifies Pee-wee there is no basement in the Alamo. By chance, he discovers that his bicycle has found its way onto a soundstage at Warner Bros. studios. Pee-wee sneaks onto the lot to steal his property back.


Production history
Paul Reubens developed the character of Pee-wee Herman as a member of the Los Angeles based comedy group The Groundlings. Audiences responded to the child-like enthusiasm of the character far more than any other in Reubens’ repertoire. After failing to make cast of the 1980 season of Saturday Night Live, Reubens returned to L.A. With $3,000 his parents wired and help from Groundlings colleagues, Reubens created The Pee-wee Herman Show, which sold out the Roxy Theater for five straight months. In 1981, HBO broadcast a performance, which grew so successful, Warner Bros. signed Reubens to write a Pee-wee movie.

Reubens’ idea was “sort of a remake of Pollyanna, with Pee-wee in the Hayley Mills role. And it was basically Pee-wee Herman came to a small town and he made everybody happy.” But walking the studio lot with his managers, Reubens noticed that everyone had a bicycle except for him. A week later, Reubens was presented with a bright orange 1947 restored Schwinn racer. He realized the movie he should be writing was Pee-wee loving his bicycle more than anything in the world and having it stolen. Reubens and his co-writers Phil Hartman & Michael Varhol started from scratch.

Warner Bros. greenlit Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but Reubens voiced concerns about the director the studio had approved. Given a week to find a replacement, a friend of Reubens’ recommended a short film he’d seen called Frankenweenie. Shelley Duvall had appeared in the short, and when Reubens called her, she said that the director was named Tim Burton and that Reubens would love him. Screening the short the next day, Reubens knew almost immediately that Burton had the eye for art direction and style they were looking for.


Frankenweenie – which concerned a boy who reanimates his dead pitbull after it’s hit by a car – was so dark and weird that it received a PG rating, prompting Disney to yank it from playing with Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Burton wasn’t working and accepted the offer to make Pee-wee’s Big Adventure his first feature film. Budgeted at $7 million and shot quickly around Los Angeles, the film opened in July 1985. Pauline Kael praised it in the New Yorker, but most critics dismissed Burton’s debut as a kiddie flick. Audiences ate it up, buying $45 million worth of tickets in the U.S.

Unlike the playland Reubens created for his stage show and the Saturday morning TV program – with its genie, kitsch characters, and talking furniture – the film takes place in the real world, more or less, and part of its immense charm is that regular everyday people seem to accept Pee-wee for who he is. In return, he brings a sense of wonder into their lives. As a comedy, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of the best of its decade, but what endears it beyond the ‘80s is its universe, maintained with very little money but a lot of wit, imagination and style.

The script conjures up hilarity from start to finish, from Pee-wee’s toybox of a house, to his tour of the Alamo, to the movie-within-a-movie that concludes the film. Selecting Tim Burton to direct was one of the most ingenious producing strokes of all time; his affinity for misunderstood outsiders, expressive art design and lovably cheap stop motion effects fit this material perfectly. The film is very well cast – especially Elizabeth Daily as Pee-wee’s gal – and Danny Elfman, composing his first film score, produced some of his most iconic music ever.


Vince Leo at Qwipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “Although the story is simple, the characterizations are terrific, and every stop along the way is full of inventiveness and funny surprises. With lots of energy, Burton’s knack for artistic sights, and Elfman’s novel score, this is a movie unlike any other before or since.”

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,” writes Mike Jackson at DVD Verdict.

Michael Brooke at DVD Times writes, “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) … Even today, it still comes across as being one of the best things that Burton ever did.”

“You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel!” Paul Reubens and Elizabeth Daily in my favorite scene from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Famous line · Road trip · Train

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 shahn // May 25, 2008 at 7:07 am

    Thanks for covering this – I LOVE this film. It doesn’t often get the respect it deserves.

    And I love visiting your site for all your research and these Robert-Osborne-esque reviews. Keep up the good work.

  • 2 Moviezzz // May 25, 2008 at 9:37 am

    Great review. Always loved it.

    And I’m happy to say, my sister has started showing this to her almost 5 and 2 year olds. They LOVE it. So, it will live on for future generations.

  • 3 AR // May 25, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Well, I wouldn’t venture to give it 5 stars, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. That scene you mention, especially, is one of my favorites.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // May 25, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Shahn: In August 2005, around 3,000 people showed up for a screening at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I wasn’t there but understand Reubens, Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger and others were on hand to introduce the movie to much excitement. But you’re right, not many people would rate Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as one of the best films of the ’80s. I would rather watch this than a Wim Wenders film any day.

    Thank you for paying me such a flattering comment. It means even more considering the artistic pedigree and singular style on display at your site.

    Moviezzz: Man, I love hearing things like that. Every time I feel like the future is doomed, I see a 5-year-old eating up Bugs Bunny or a movie like this one that doesn’t pander just to kids or try to sell them something, but actually creates its own universe, style and pathos.

    AR: Thanks for commenting. Among all of Tim Burton’s films with the exception of Edward Scissorhands this may be my favorite, while Paul Reubens has never been better doing Pee-wee than here in this film. It’s nearly a perfect movie and for me it transcends being a silly little amusement. Mars Attacks!, now there’s a silly little amusement.

  • 5 christian // May 26, 2008 at 12:49 am

    You know, I think this is a fun film, but not a real Pee Wee Herman film. I still think his HBO special is his best showcase and is utterly surreal, charming and hilarious. Where’s the DVD?

  • 6 Joe Valdez // May 26, 2008 at 2:12 am

    Christian: The Pee-wee Herman Show: Live at the Roxy Theater was finally released on DVD in 2006. Thanks for making me look that up and add it to my queue. What’s interesting is that Reubens skewered the Pee-wee universe more to kids as he went through the ’80s. The stage show is so jokey and intended to amuse adults, whereas the Saturday morning TV show obviously had kids in mind. For me, the first movie is the perfect balance of both.

  • 7 AR // May 27, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Mars Attacks!, now there’s a silly little amusement.
    I can agree with you on that, for sure!

    My favorite Tim Burton films are Ed Wood, Batman Returns, and Edward Scissorhands Pee-wee for me is only marginally a Burton film as it’s really Reubens’s show.
    I like the original HBO special as well. To see the character in a more adult context is interesting and brought to the fore what was lurking there when I saw the kids’ show and movies as a kid (the production design on that show btw is fantastic!).

  • 8 Joe Valdez // May 27, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    AR: I respect everything you added. When I mention Paul Reubens to someone and they make a dopey reference to his run-in with the law, I don’t even consider it worthy of a response. So much creativity and wit went into the production of the Pee-wee universe that if you can’t at least appreciate the set design, or Larry Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, I feel sorry for you.

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