You either love the manchild known as Pee Wee Herman, or you hate him. I have fond memories of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Pee Wee’s Playhouse from my younger days. I must confess some of his real life issues have been troubling enough to give me pause about what might be going on in that obviously off kilter head of his, but nothing has yet hampered my enjoyment of much of his work.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is my favorite of all his work. Having just watched it for this review, I can safely say my fondness is not all about childhood nostalgia. The film is a cult classic which still stands up today. I appreciate the weird atmosphere of it all. The colors of the film are all basic, giving the adventure a playroom fantasy atmosphere. Add to that real adult characters as they would be envisioned by a small child and you have an absurd artistic vision that is great escapism.
I have been quite harsh towards Tim Burton in the few reviews I have given to his films thus far. The problem with him is that he cannot do a mainstream film that will not let his inner weirdo run on a long leash. The problem with me is I do not have an ounce of goth in me. When those two problems collide, Burton and I do not get along. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is different. He was allowed to put enough of his strange vision without turning the film into a gothic mess that I can really enjoy it. Credit where credit is due, I think Paul Reubens is probably more responsible for the enjoyable elements. But hey, I tried complimenting Burton for once.
Pee Wee Herman is a grown man who acts completely like a child. He cares about nothing more in the world than his bicycle. A girl at the bike shop has a thing for him, but he pays her no romantic mind whatsoever. Pee wEe’s neighbor, Francis, is also a manchild, but he refuses to grow up because, with his rich daddy, he does not have to. Francis wants Pee Wee’s bike, he will not give or sell it to him.
The bike winds up stolen. A distraught Pee Wee eventually goes to a psychic for help. She is a fraud who sends Pee Wee on a cross country escapade to the Alamo, where she claims his bike is being kept in the basement.
Along the way, Pee Wee meets a menagerie of colorful characters. They include Simone, a waitress with dreams of visiting Paris, her violent tempered, jealous boyfriend, Large Marge, a truck driving ghost whose shocking revelation scared the bejebus out of me as a nine year old, a bunch of nasty bikers who could be won over by a dance to “Tequila,” and an escaped convict who tore the do not remove tag off a mattress. Pee Wee reacts to all these people with the mind of a child.
Pee Wee discovers his bike now belongs to a child star who is using it as a prop in a blockbuster movie. Pee Wee sneaks onto the studio lot to steal it back. What results is a climactic chase through various, stereotypical movie sets, with an unexpected cameo by Twisted sister. I am often bemused by Hollywood’s self-importance in adding moviemaking to a film, but this time it is a laugh riot. Pee Wee winds up saving a pet shop full of animals from a fire, thereby becoming a hero after his escape from the studio lot.
The studio instead wants to make a film of Pee Wee’s story. It becomes a James Bond style adventure with James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild starring as Pee Wee and Dottie. In the film, his bike is stolen by the Soviets, just as Pee Wee first speculated. Oddly enough, I had most nostalgia about this point. Movies had far better bad guys during the Cold War, no?
At the creaky old age of 34, I still love Pere Wee’s Big Adventure. It is so fantastically peculiar that I wish more films would be made with such a unique vision. I am afraid the film may have caught lightning in a bottle. Neither Burton, nor Reubens have come close to entertaining me quite like this with any other project.
Rating: *** (out of 5)