Kooky cult comedy antics abound in this ’80s double bill oddity, starring Paul Reubens as his madcap Groundling creation, Pee-wee Herman.
Adorned in a grey suit, white high-heeled shoes (“tequila!”) and a little red bowtie, the petulant, childlike roars and idiosyncratic shenanigans of Reubens’ character were lapped up by an infantile me, endlessly looping a homemade Big Adventure tape.
What was the draw? Firstly, I found it immensely engaging and incredibly funny, but Pee-wee is about as distant from my onscreen heroes like Bond or Indy as you could possibly imagine. A skinny, effeminate, asexual manchild with a penchant for cute dogs, frequenting joke shops, and riding an ostentatious, campy red bicycle. It’s enough to make parents concerned. Whilst my masculine, manly-man quota was jam packed with Michael Knight, The A-Team, and Magnum P.I., Reubens’ alter ego was arguably a yin to their yang – anima indulgence, in the way a northern lad solely watching Rocky and Top Gun could never access.
“It’s like you’re unravelling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting.”Pee-wee Herman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
In terms of the comedy, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (scripted by Reubens and a pre-SNL Phil Hartman, drawing on the 1948 Italian neorealist drama, Bicycle Thieves as inspiration) lays it on pretty thick. I’d estimate around 60-70% of it still sticks. Whether that’s a case of the funnies themselves aging, or the fact that Pee-wee split audiences back in the 1980s (and likely always will), I’m uncertain.
The breakfast making machine, bitter interactions with the intolerable “Francis!” (my favourite moment of his has him monstrously destroying model battleships at bathtime in his giant indoor swimming pool) and the escaped convict hitchhiker in Big Adventure all had me chuckling again, but this time around it was Pee-wee’s misunderstood recounting of a dream that really made me howl.
Simone: Do you have any dreams? Pee-wee Herman: Yeah, I’m all alone. I’m rolling a big doughnut and this snake wearing a vest…
The Pee-wee films are not without a big scoop of nostalgia for me. I remember them fondly for all their delirious exploits and the early directorial flourishes of Tim Burton, whose movies like Batman, Batman Returns (where Reubens played The Penguin’s monocled father), and Beetlejuice were also on regular VHS rotation. Upon the latest rewatch, Francis’ gothic, striped towel stood out like a Burton-shaped sore thumb, and what says Tim Burton more than a snake in a vest? This being his first live action feature film, it’s an early insight into Burton’s bizzaro outsider protagonists of choice, and it evidently paved the stripey black and white road for later incarnations of oddness ahead.
My memory of falling in love with Valeria Golino as Gina Piccolapupula in the sequel, Big Top Pee-wee is vivid, perhaps partially due to her other sultry roles at the time in Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux.
Randal Kleiser (director of Grease, Flight of the Navigator, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid) toes the line in terms of Reubens’ and Burton’s already established aesthetics. There’s the welcome inclusion of Vance – the chatty, anthropomorphised pig, and some further underlying absurdity, particularly noticeable in the freaky, Tod Browning-esque circus folk, featuring a human pretzel, a hermaphrodite, a tiny pixie wife, conjoined twins, a mermaid in a bath, Kevin Peter Hall as Big John, and a brief film debut by Benicio del Toro as Duke, the Dog-Faced Boy.
Big Top also boasts a hearty, dignified performance from Kris Kristofferson as circus ringmaster, Mace Montana – a befitting counterweight to Herman. He’s as close to a dad as the fatherless Pee-wee gets.
“You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”Pee-wee Herman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
The sexuality of Herman, although something which never dawned on me as a child, is thought provoking. There’s not a hint of it in Big Adventure. In fact, Pee-wee actively dodges a drive-in date with his admirer, Dottie (until the end) and seemingly has little interest in women, even as he’s entwined in his 007 fantasies, but by the time Big Top rolled around, so did Pee-wee, literally, on a picnic blanket with schoolteacher and reluctant girlfriend, Winnie.
Although the infamous South Trail Cinema incident looms large in Pee-wee lore, the “victimless occurrence”, as Pee-wee’s Playhouse collaborator and buddy Cyndi Lauper put it, perhaps shouldn’t, and personally doesn’t alter my view or enjoyment of the films. The movies have enough in the bank with me, but for some, it did shatter the sexual ambiguity of Pee-wee, albeit via Reubens, who notably, to indulge the illusion that Pee-wee is real, prefers to be credited as the titular character – an error in judgment in retrospect perhaps, as it never allowed a line to be drawn between Paul and his Pee-wee persona.
We don’t know Pee-wee’s age, he has no job we’re aware of, yet puzzlingly resides in a playhouse packed with gadgets “Doc” Brown would flip over. It’s all fantasy. The type that indulges the mind of a child and throws a monkey wrench into the brain of an adult. I had to put my childhood eyes back in to experience Pee-wee like before, but once I was acclimated, it took me back like time travel in a way that only a handful of films can.
Amid the madness, there is the pointed, poignant message to misfits that “it’s okay to be different.” Pee-wee exemplifies this and let’s face it, there are far worse sentiments you could impart to the kids of the world.
For me, both films are akin to looking back at photographs of simpler, happier times with a life yet to be lived. They’re tinged with a sliver of sadness. A melancholy. Perhaps it’s the image of a man completely in tune with himself but so out of whack with others. Although in these movies, Pee-wee is predominantly embraced by people and it’s his own peculiarities that alienate him.
There’s still something off-kilter about it all: the histrionic performances, quirky art direction and design, Danny Elfman’s urgent score music – yes. But also on an unintentional level. Something outside the filmmakers’ control, like Lynchian creepy crawlies lurking beneath a white picket fence. Not depravity or lewdness. Something harder to pin down.
There’s palpable discomfort when Pee-wee peers into the lens, bids us good morning and whispers, “I’m here!” It’s weird enough to disturb, saccharine enough to churn the stomach a little, and artful and intriguing enough to justify a big rewind.
“Be sure an’ tell ’em Large Marge sent ya!”