Week two of our Tim Burton Brief brings us to the director’s first theatrical effort, 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. This nearly thirty-year old comedy remains a deft and amusing collaboration between Burton and Paul Reubens, a comedian who, in the early 1980s, created the character of Pee Wee Herman and saw that persona rise to national fame.
If you’re unfamiliar with Pee Wee Herman, he’s essentially a big-hearted but emotionally-stunted man-child dressed in a suit. Pee Wee is both charmingly innocent in nature and yet diabolically aggressive when he doesn’t get his way.
In the course of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee Wee meets hostility from the “real” (adult) world in the form of an escaped criminal, a biker gang, the jealous boyfriend of an acquaintance, and not least of all, Francis Buxton. Francis is a rich, indulged man-child, a kind of dark reflection of Pee Wee. In all cases, except for Francis — who is truly incorrigible and thus irredeemable — Pee Wee works his child’s magic upon his enemies, transforming them into friends and supporters.
The inference is obvious: unless you’re a monster (like Francis…) you just can’t hate Pee Wee for long. We also saw this quality in the character of Ed Wood last week. Through his eternal optimism and enthusiasm, Burton’s Wood successfully drew others into his orbit, into his world of movie-making. Through his child-like kindness and friendship, Pee Wee often accomplishes the same feat here, permitting other characters to “follow” their dreams the very way that he does. Whatever his failings in terms of fitting in, Pee Wee is indomitable, and people around him pick-up on that admirable quality.
And, of course, that’s the point.
Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) sets out on one lovely day to pick up a new horn for his beloved bike at Chuck’s Bike-o-rama.
Unfortunately, Herman’s nasty nemesis, Francis Buxton (Mark Holton) hires someone to steal his bike. But when Herman goes on the radio to detail his campaign to get the stolen bike back, Buxton re-hires his underling to get rid of it so he won’t get into trouble with his Dad.
After visiting a fortune teller, Herman learns that the missing bike may be “in the basement of the Alamo,” and sets off for Texas. Along the way, he meets an escaped criminal, a waitress who longs to see Paris, a ghost named “Large Marge,” a hobo on a train and even a biker gang. Through it all, Pee Wee admirably keeps his focus on his bike…and makes friends in the process.
Finally, when he learns that a famous child star, Kevin Morton (Jason Hervey) has possession of the bicycle, Pee Wee goes to Hollywood and sneaks onto the Warner Bros. lot to get it back. Pee Wee recovers his stolen treasure, and after a lengthy chase, becomes a star in his own right.
As it turns out, a studio exec at Warners think that Pee Wee’s big adventure would make a hell of a movie, especially if it starred James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild…
“Everyone has a big “but”…”
Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure works so well as a comedy because Tim Burton unabashedly forgoes any sense of realism, and instead allows the audience to feel (Heaven forbid…) what it would be like to live in Pee Wee’s world for ninety minutes.
For instance, as Pee Wee learns of the criminal and shocking theft of his bike, the camera goes cockeyed, Danny Elfman’s score turns portentous, and we get extreme close-ups of a sinister-appearing robot Clown. The bike had been chained to that clown, but now the clown seems to mock Pee Wee with it’s very presence. It’s an evil Leviathan, passing judgment; mocking him.
In almost the very next scene, Pee Wee grows despondent over his loss of the bike, and once again, we seem to peek directly into his fevered brain. Suddenly, everybody (even a mime…) rides by on wheels, implicitly mocking Pee Wee’s lack of conveyance. This is a particularly funny scene, as Pee Wee can’t look anywhere without being reminded of the amazing treasure he has lost. And we absolutely know that bike is amazing, because Pee Wee is practically blinded by the bike’s radiance on the first occasion it is depicted in the film.
Soon, Pee Wee’s unhappiness turns him into something of a monster, a fact we see expressed visually during a sequence set in a rain-swept alley. Pee Wee enters the scene first as a shadow, as a giant, hunched over monster. This image reveals how (an unfair) loss has informed the character’s view of the world. Again and again, Burton’s exaggerated use of mise-en-scene tells us something critical about the emotional context of Pee Wee’s world and his thoughts.
The film’s first scene, in fact, is a pretty terrific reflection of Pee Wee’s universe and psyche. It’s a dream sequence in which Pee Wee envisions himself racing in the tour de France.
As the movie and scene commence, Pee Wee — on his beloved bike — passes the other racers effortlessly. At first, he does so with that trademark little giggle of his. Then, as he increases speed and vanquishes all of his opponents, the giggle turns to a cackle of ego maniacal glee. There’s something driving and a little out-of-control about this desire to win the race, to be the best, and the escalating insanity of Pee Wee’s laughter reveals that.
He wins the race, but as Pee Wee is about to be crowned victorious, his alarm clock rings, exposing the scene as a dream. Instead of ending abruptly, however, the dream continues to unfold, and the gathered attendees just sort of wander away and disperse, a moment which reveals how “deflating” an awakening from fantasy can be. And indeed, Pee Wee’s whole world is fantasy. When he awakens from it — as is the case with the bike theft — it’s devastating to him. Without making Pee Wee’s Big Adventure sound like deep social commentary, there’s clearly something here about a child’s first experience countenancing the world. Witness Pee Wee’s disappointment upon learning that the Alamo doesn’t actually have a basement. Why don’t they tell kids thing like that, he practically asks.
As I wrote above, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure seems to work at its apex of humor when the character’s dark side is allowed free rein. Pee Wee tackles Francis in a pool, and nearly drowns the cad, for instance. At another point, Pee Wee is debauched when other bicycle riders in the park perform riding tricks, and he can’t match them. Suddenly, he sets about to do so. And when he fails rather clumsily, he nonetheless triumphantly opines “I meant to do that.”
The idea here is of a child’s id unloosed in a man’s body and it is the very thing that makes Pee Wee’s Big Adventure so funny. We all possess an inner child making demands on us, and yet we can’t act on those demands or impulses if we wish to be taken seriously. When confronted with a name-calling bully, we can’t just say “I know you are, but what am I?” No, we must act like adults, even when we are challenged and insulted. The funny thing about Pee Wee Herman is that he possesses no such restraints. Perhaps, Pee Wee’s persona, in some way, is based on wish-fulfilment.
Sometimes, the childish id we carry inside is just about being recognized; about being the center of attention. With that idea in mind, witness the wondrous and very funny moment in which Pee Wee — playing a hotel clerk in a movie of his life — almost unconsciously inches his way to center screen, upstaging “stars” James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild.
Pee Wee is not making this attention-grabbing move out of malice. Rather it’s as if the gravity of his own unquenchable ego pulls him towards the camera, demanding he take center stage. Aren’t we all like that, some days?
Perhaps most of all, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a delight because of the whimsical world Burton creates for Pee Wee to inhabit. Hollywood is littered with instances of successful comedians trying to make a go of it in the movie business and failing (think Tom Green, or Andrew Dice Clay). In such instances, the comedians transplanted themselves to the silver screen, but did not provide a compelling world to alongside their popular “characters.”
In the case of Paul Reubens, the comedian was clever to collaborate with Burton, a man who could build a cinematic world from the ground up, and more that, assure that it would work in conjunction with Pee Wee’s essential nature. It’s pretty clear Tim Burton “gets” Pee Wee, or at least understands the concept of being different from the rest of the world. That act of sympathy — as well as a sense of daring visual imagination — underlines all of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and it is also the quality, that, in some circles, earn this movie the descriptor of “classic.”
Next week: Beetlejuice!