The first feature length film directed by Tim Burton, Pee-wee's Big Adventure took the character that Paul Reubens had developed for an HBO special and brought to the big screen. The end result? Massive fame for Reubens, though the flipside of that is that to most of the world, he basically is Pee-wee Herman, the actor and the character are now pretty much inseparable. A sequel would follow, and then a TV series, but it's this feature film that a lot of people remember most fondly, and for good reason. Viewed now, sixteen years after seeing it in the theater, it remains a very original work and a film that's as funny as it is just plain weird.
The story begins when bizarre man-child Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) wakes up - he makes himself breakfast by way of a complicated series of machines and props in what is basically something lifted right out of the game Mouse Trap. After he and his little dog Speck finish their meal, it's out the door to greet the day where he's accosted by neighborhood brat, Francis Buxton (Mark Holton), the obnoxious overweight kid who is spoiled rotten by his father. It turns out today is Francis' birthday and his father told him he could have anything he wants. What does he want? Pee-wee's prized bicycle, of course - but after an argument Pee-wee makes it perfectly clear that the bike is not for sale. He heads to the bike shop from there to pick up his new horn from pretty employee Dottie (Elizabeth Daily), who is obviously quite smitten with Pee-wee, and while inside his bike is stolen. Pee-wee figures it was Francis and sneaks into his house to beat it out of him but Francis bluffs his way out of it.
Distraught and depressed by the theft of his most prized possession, Pee-wee soon consults with a psychic named Madame Ruby (Erica Yohn) who tells him that his bike in the basement of the Alamo in Texas. This begins Pee-wee's road trip, where he hitchhikes his way across the country with some help from an escaped criminal named Mickey (Judd Omen), the ghost of a female trucker named Large Marge (Alice Nunn), a hobo named Jack (Carmen Filpi), a kindly waitress named Simone (Diane Salinger), and a crew of seemingly nasty bikers. Pee-wee's bike, however, is on its own path - will he ever be reunited with his two wheeled best friend?
Chock full of bizarre situations and equally bizarre characters, Pee-wee's world is familiar to our own but in many ways completely different. Whereas Pee-wee would no doubt be treated as a freak, here those around him accept him as he is and act as if he's completely normal. Shopkeepers are happy to see him, neighborhood kids dig his biking skills, and women find him attractive. Pretty much every person around Reubens' character plays things completely straight and a lot of the film's humor stems from its ability to present one strange situation after another as if it is completely normal. Case in point? The infamous 'Tequila' sequence in which Pee-wee is granted one last wish before the biker gang (one of whom is Cassandra Peterson - better known as Elvira!) kill him for knocking over their rides. Pee-wee's last wish is, evidently, to put on a pair of platform shoes and do a bizarre dance on top of the bar while The Champs' 'Tequila' plays from the jukebox. Not only do the bikers take this at face value, but it impresses them so much that they forgive him and reward him with a motorcycle of his own, which he then promptly crashes into a billboard. Of course, it all builds to a ridiculously awesome conclusion where (SPOILERS!), reunited with his ride, Pee-wee runs from the Warner Brothers' lot security team across various movie sets and even though the filming of a Twisted Sister video ( END OF SPOILERS!). It's the perfect way for Pee-wee to finish off his 'big adventure' and one of the highlights of the film.
Reubens, of course, is perfect in the role he made famous here. He's hilariously awkward in certain scenes and ridiculously confident in others and while his act would sometimes feel like overkill in the TV series that followed, here Pee-wee Herman is consistently funny. He does a great of channeling that childlike personality so that when he does things that a kid would do, like engage in an 'I know you are but what am I' argument or get up from a spill on his bike and tell the bystanders 'I meant to do that' it doesn't feel anything less than natural for the character to react as such. With Tim Burton's creative directorial duties channeling Reubens' insanity, the movie winds up a treat on a visual level as well. Where else but here are you going to see a semi-romantic (or at least fairly touching) scene take place between two characters inside the mouth of a giant fake dinosaur? What about Pee-wee's hallucations in which his bike winds up on an operating room table before going to Hell itself where Francis is the devil? The macabre sense of humor that Burton would later bring to films like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas is already evident here, early on in his career (though those who saw Frankenweenie know that it didn't start here). The film also marks the first of many collaborations between Burton and composer Danny Elfman, who cut his teeth as a composer for the first time on this film. The script was co-written by the late Phil Hartman (who has a small cameo at the end of the movie) and also features Saturday Night Live alumni Jan Hooks in a small role. Cameo's from Milton Berle, James Brolin, Morgan Fairchild, Lynne Marie Stewart and future Wonder Years star Jason Hervey are also noteworthy.
Warner Brothers presents Pee-wee's Big Adventure in a pretty solid looking 1.85.1 widescreen AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer preserving the film's original theatrical aspect ratio. While detail and texture are quite a bit improved over the standard definition release, now ten years old, it's the colors that really benefit from this upgrade. Certain scenes, like the hospital hallucination and the bit with Pee-Wee and Simone inside the dinosaur, really look much better now and show off better defined hues and shades without ever bleeding or looking messy. Skin tones look good, any noise reduction that's been applied here is minor, and there were no noticeable compression artifacts or edge enhancement issues to report. The odd specks shows up now and then, but there aren't any serious instances of print damage to complain about and all in all, fans should be pretty happy with Warner's efforts here.
The primary track on this disc is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, though Dolby Digital Mono tracks are offered up in French, Latin Spanish and Castilian Spanish with subtitles provided in English SDH, French, Spanish and a few other languages. Dialogue is clean and clear and never hard to understand while good use is made of the surround channels throughout the movie. The score is where you'll notice the biggest improvement, as Elfman's music really finds some new life here and sounds richer and fuller than it ever did on DVD. There are no problems with any traces of hiss or distortion at all and the levels are properly balanced from start to finish. This may not compete with more aggressive modern lossless surround sound mixes, but it does sound very good for a movie made in 1985.
While there are no new extras on this release, Warner Brothers has carried over all of the supplements from the previous DVD edition, starting with the commentary track from director Tim Burton and Paul Reubens. The commentary takes a little while to hit its stride but turns out to be a pretty decent effort once it does. Burton talks about some of the design aspects involved in the production and how the film's low budget made some of this tricky while Reubens talks about the Pee-Wee character and what it was like playing his first starring role. It could have been more detailed and a moderator might have been beneficial in terms of pulling more information out of the pair, but it's a decent track. Also included here is an isolated score track featuring commentary from composer Danny Elfman, who chimes in between musical bits so as not to interrupt the music. Elfman's input is welcome, he's an interesting guy and has some interesting stories to tell about why he composed things the way he did and about his involvement in the picture overall.
Aside from that, there are four deleted scenes here including a bit with Amazing Larry and his new hair style, some more with the bikers and of course the extended version of the chase scene that takes place on the Warner Brothers lot. These are presented fullframe with time code but well worth watching. Production designer David L. Snyder provides some insightful commentary over a slideshow of his storyboards that is well worth checking out just to get a glimpse as to what is involved in this side of the production, while the film's theatrical trailer, menus and chapter stops round out the extras.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure has lost none of its quirky appeal over the years. It's still a weird, wacky and funny film that features a star making performance form Reubens and an interesting cast of equally quirky supporting characters. It's also interesting on a technical level, what with it being one of Burton's early efforts and all. Warner's Blu-ray offers a pretty noticeable improvement over the old DVD release in both the audio and video department and if it doesn't bring any new extras to the table, at least it carries over all the old ones. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.