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Some executive at Warner Bros. made the smartest deal of 1984 when Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was green-lit. Putting comic Paul Reubens' stage show character Pee-Wee Herman on the big screen, under the direction of CalArts whiz kid Tim Burton was an act of faith and daring. Soon-to-be Saturday Night Live player Phil Hartman contributed to the screenplay with Paul Reubens and Michael Varhol, opening up and amplifying the goofy-adorable kiddie show vibe attached to Reubens' nervous, not-quite-innocent individualist hero. Binding together the film's self-assured candy color world is the music of Danny Elfman, a composer recruited from the alternative music scene. Elfman was deeply involved with the band Oingo Boingo, and had contributed retro-trash rock tracks to his brother's film Forbidden Zone, a cross between Max Fleischer animated madness and the spirit of porn-inflected Zap Comics. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is the sunny side of that alternative-culture coin... yet enough edge remained to make some parents consider the TV show 'dangerous' viewing matter for kids.
Tim Burton and Paul Reubens' film version is a charming kaleidoscope of silly adventures, all dressed up in colors suitable for a nursery school playroom. Pee-Wee (Reubens) dreams of winning the Tour De France on his spruced up, amazingly accessorized bicycle, a cherished possession he keeps under lock and key. Bike store clerk Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) unsuccessfully tries to interest Pee-Wee in romance, only to see him go halfway crazy when his bike is stolen, probably by his rich, spoiled neighbor Francis Buxton (Mark Holton). Told by an unscrupulous fortuneteller to seek his bike in the basement of the Alamo, Pee-Wee sets off for Texas by road and rail. He runs into an escaped criminal on the way, but also inspires waitress Simone (Diane Salinger) to follow her dream of moving to Paris. Will Pee-Wee find his bicycle and put his life back in order?
With his animation and arts background Tim Burton knew just how to bring Pee-Wee to life on the big screen, on a limited budget. At least in terms of art direction, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is immediately recognizable as a major achievement. Burton photographs everything in terms suitable for a '50s TV show, but literally every image is a memorable visual achievement, more often than not obtained through theatrical arts and crafts, as opposed to special optical effects. Twisting kitch into comedy, the film scores by staying true to its infantile characters and dazzling us with creativity. Los Angeles residents traveling eastward often pass by a pair of dinosaur sculptures in Cabazon, now dwarfed by an Indian casino; Elfman paints them in bright primary colors and uses the mouth of one as a place for the soulfully clueless Simone to pour her heart out to Pee-Wee.
Excepting the pudgy, pinched face neighborhood villain Francis, Pee-Wee gathers friends wherever he goes. The escaped criminal sees Pee-Wee as a fellow rogue adventurer challenging the world; they get along fine until Pee-Wee drives their car off a cliff. Pee-Wee befriends a hobo (Sunshine Parker) in a freight car, only to be made crazy by the old dotard's incessant sing-along crooning. Pee-Wee hitchhikes to the macabre side with "Large Marge" (Alice Nunn), a gag enlivened with stop-motion clay animation by Burton's frequent collaborators the Chiodo Brothers. Another highlight is Pee-Wee's fateful detour into a biker bar, where he's threatened at knifepoint for knocking over the long line of choppers parked outside. As each swarthy biker suggests a horrible torture-death for Pee-Wee, he tries to throw his voice into the mix, squeaking out "I say we let him go!"
Reubens, Burton and company wrap up the silliness with an old-fashioned madcap chase through a film studio. Escaping with his precious bike, Pee-wee interrupts various shoots including a Twisted Sister music video and a battle scene between Godzilla and a piñata-like Ghidorah. Reubens' lack of pretension plus Burton's flair for graphic simplicity, Looney Tunes logic and good humor carry the show in high style. The kicker is seeing Pee-Wee's story interpreted as a movie, with the 'oversexed' stars James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild playing Pee-Wee and Dottie.
The show slips in more star cameos and familiar faces in small or bit roles. Pee-Wee sneaks into the studio with Milton Berle's entourage, and Tony Bill plays a smug movie executive. Ex- TV announcer Ed Herlihy and character actor Lou Cutell show up, as does Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson, who unfortunately has only one dialogue line. Steven Spielberg and Walter Hill favorite bit player Luis Contreras is a menacing biker in an eye patch. Everybody has fun in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. 1
DVD Blu-ray of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is a real treat, especially for those of us who only saw Tim Burton's first feature on fuzzy early VHS tapes or cable TV broadcasts. Everything's as sharp as a tack and none of the bright colors bleed; we can appreciate Pee-Wee's big musical number, a dance on a pool table to the Champs' tune Tequila. Danny Elfman's circus-y music score, with those cues that mimic the vibe of a number of Nino Rota Fellini scores, come across forcefully in the uncompressed 5.1 audio track. Tracks are provided in French and Castilian and Latin Spanish, with subtitles in English, French and Spanish. 2
Paul Reubens and Tim Burton get together for the commentary track, which doesn't begin with much energy. Tim Burton has a bad habit of pointing out the restrictions imposed by the meager budget; somebody ought to tell him that the less money he throws around, the more his own creative contribution stands out. (I'm sure he knows, that's just a reaction to his modesty on the commentary.) Also included are a selection of additional scenes, a gallery of artwork and storyboards, the original trailer, and an Isolated Music Only track with Danny Elfman commentary. In other words, there's more than enough here to satisfy the Burton faithful.
The scene in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure that reaches kitsch nirvana for me is the guided tour of The Alamo, with that annoyingly poised hostess chewing gum as she gives Pee-Wee the important news about the fortress's basement. And then encourages everybody to laugh in his face. The glow from this joke lasted eleven years, to be resurrected for a similar situation in Mars Attacks! In fact, I think the fallout from that scene has had a positive effect on guided tours ever since.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure Blu-ray rates:
1. Complete digression: as a cutter of TV commercials in the early 1980s, I helped put together a Mattel Toys TV spot with the kid actor playing the jerk star who receives Pee-Wee's coveted super-bike. In terms of messages conveyed to kids, Mattel's spots were EVIL. The child actor was in a Hot Wheels spot, which roughly consisted of a hostile Alpha Male kid (our blond jerk) wiping out his friend's cars in some race competition, and then sneering, "I'm the winner!" point-blank into the camera. The "girl" spots followed their own pattern: the 'star' girl was invariably blonde and her best friend / submissive acolyte always a less flashy brunette. The brunette was typically given some lame dialogue line so the blonde could finish her off with whatever beauty secret the Mattel Toy contained. If that didn't make me want to rebel, the attitude of the advertising people screening their dailies did. Trying to butter up the director, the technicians praised the blonde brat and made fun of the brunette, who clearly felt that she was considered second-class goods. The line that shocked me was, "Who tapped her with the ugly stick?"
Savant's days in the advertising game were numbered. Air New Zealand had a song jingle that went, "We're Air New Zealand / We fly the Pacific!" I'd go around the post-house singing, "We're Air New Zealand / We fly nowhere specific!"
Oh yes, the kid who plays the child star in Pee-Wee was in a TV spot I cut. That's all I really wanted to say.
2. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure became a visible part of the first public awareness promos explaining to video fans why letterboxing was a desirable practice. The example given was the flat TV version of the scene where Pee-Wee pulls a long chain out of the saddlebag on his super-bike. There's far more chain than would ever fit, so the filmmakers feed it through a hole in the bottom of the bag. Properly matted for widescreen (as it is on this disc) the scene doesn't show the bottom of the saddlebag. But the TV version was transferred so thoughtlessly, we could see the chain traveling up from the ground into the bag, spoiling the joke.
Of course now, twenty-five years later, clueless video companies occasionally reformat flat movies to fill widescreen sets, stretching images and hacking off important visual information. Same as it ever was.
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T'was Ever Thus.