I can’t say I know much about Pee-wee Herman. I know he had a TV show that involved talking furniture, over the top ways to make breakfast and Laurence Fishburne as a cowboy. I know that he was very popular in his time (and apparently popular enough to get not one, but TWO movies in two different eras). And I know that the character itself seemed to operate on pure unadulterated, childlike energy. With all of that in mind, I still really didn’t know what to expect of Mr. Herman’s first cinematic outing in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, a film that also happened to be directed by emerging wunderkind Tim Burton, a man who also made a career in distilling those child feelings of wonder and whimsy into hugely popular films.
As it turns out, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE is everything you think it will be: childish, energetic, and seemingly slapdash. But it’s also a film that demonstrates pure love for a world full of lovable weirdos and cartoonish freaks resulting in a fresh feeling mainstream comedy. It’s a movie high off of imagination and all the more proud for it. Funnily enough, the film’s story is rather simple: out on a day stroll, Pee Wee, a whimsical man child dressed to the T in a slim and slick gray suit, becomes the victim of a robbery when his beloved bicycle is stolen. From there, Pee Wee sets off across the nation to find his beloved bike. And that’s all Burton and Reubens need to get their story on track to put their main character on a wacky journey filled with rogue criminals, ghostly truck drivers, and bloodthirsty scorned lovers.
Written by Reubens, Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE never aspires to be a hard hitting story but it does turn out to churn out some lovably bizarre comedic sequences. While overall, this is just a movie connected by a bunch of sketches, Burton never loses himself among all the vibrant whimsical-ness he creates for Reubens to take part in. Indeed, in the star role, Reubens makes Pee Wee a character that audiences will finds themselves rooting for, despite the character’s initially grating childish tendencies. With a high pitched voice and a rather vaudevillian character design, Pee Wee is an enigma that somehow works thanks to the magic of Reubens’ game performance. Despite his age, Mr. Reubens moves with the grace of a little kid spazzing off a sugar rush and the energy he emits carries even the weakest of moments within this film. Even when you realize that this is pretty much a wacked out kids movie made by wacked out grown ups who still act like kids, the energy emitting from this movie latches onto you and injects one hell of a sugar rush.
Behind the scenes, Burton, in his first feature directorial debut figures to be the perfect match for Reubens’ fever dream kid world as he displays his own moments of patented zaniness. With cinematographer Victor J. Kemper lovingly breathing life into Pee-wee’s adventure across the country from sunny California to the blue skies of San Antonio, Texas, Burton and his crew vividly display the freaks, geeks, and lovers that are to be found on the roads of America. Indeed, while PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE is essentially about a man-child tracking down his stolen bike, the film is moreso a offbeat road trip movie that eventually descends into a surprisingly humorous meta take on TV-to-Film adaptations. The most important thing that the young director hones in on is the film’s tone of pure childish joy. While another director might be more focused on making Pee-wee’s adventures too meta or even too saccharine, Burton fully understand Reubens’ intent with his childish creations. Indeed, when combined, these two artists create an uncompromising vision of youthful exuberance that you’re either hip to or entirely befuddled by.
Whatever the case, you won’t find yourself calling PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE derivative, at least in regards to more mainstream films. This is a film that plays by its own kooky logic and is all the better for it. While there aren’t any huge life lessons or truly astounding set pieces to be found here, what Burton and Reubens do offer is pure, unadulterated funhouse entertainment.