This is quite possibly my favorite comedy movie of all time. It’s one of those movies that feels like a different movie every time you watch it, probably because it’s SO FRIGGIN WEIRD! It’s such a product of it’s time too. As revolutionary as the 60s were for America, so were the 80s in their own way. Art got weirder, comedy got weirder, and in 1985 we got Paul Reubens as Pee-wee in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
The tone of this movie isn’t the 80s that John Hughes depicts in movies like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink. If ANYTHING it’s closer to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure– and by closer I mean the word “Adventure” is in both titles. As far as I’m concerned, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has no peer in it’s tone, genre or writing.
You may be surprised to know, as I was, that this movie was actually Tim Burton’s first full length movie. Which, after I learned that, made complete sense. It has Tim Burton’s iconic Leave it to Beaver, everything-is-fine setting, contrasted with a sense that if you just peel back a couple layers, you’ll see the dark underbelly of society; the perfect mix of cute and creepy.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is about a man-child named Pee-wee Herman, played by Paul Reubens. Pee-wee’s absolute favorite thing in the entire world is his bike, which, to be fair, is a totally rad bike. His neighbor Francis, also a man-child, is rich and has everything except Pee-wee’s bike, so naturally he wants it. Pee-wee runs into town to “stock up on some supplies”: trick gum, headlight glasses, a boomerang bowtie, and a new horn for his bike–ya know, just some regular supplies.
Pee-wee finishes his shopping to find that his bike has been stolen. Pee-wee goes crazy trying to find out what happened to it. He confronts Francis who claims he didn’t take it (which is only technically true because Francis paid someone else to do it for him). Pee-wee doesn’t let up trying to find his bike though. Francis, exhausted by the ordeal, has his man “get rid” of the bike. Still unable to find his bike, Pee-wee goes to a fortune teller (an obvious fake) who tells him, arbitrarily, that his bike is in the basement of the Alamo. So Pee-wee sets out on his Big Adventure to find his bike.
The movie was co-written by Paul Reubens, Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol. Both Hartman and Reubens were masters of tongue-and-cheek, satirical humor. My favorite line from the movie (skip to next section now if you are spoiler sensitive) is after Pee-wee takes a tour of the Alamo hoping to see the basement where he was told his lost bike would be. At the end of the tour he asks the tour guide to see the basement, the guide laughs and says that there is no basement. Pee-wee is understandably devastated. In the next scene, he sees his friend Simone (Diane Salinger) and they have a brief exchange:
Pee-wee: Guess what? The Alamo was built without a basement.
Simone: Oh, I didn’t know that…
Pee-wee: Neither did I. They don’t tell you that stuff in school. It’s something you just have to experience.
Now, arguably…it’s not the funniest line in the movie… like, at all. But it’s my favorite, dammit! It’s my favorite because, first of all, it’s hilarious absurdist humor; and second, I can absolutely see Hartman and Reubens sitting there writing the script, riffing about the story and the Alamo, and the line comes out and they decide to put it in the script. Who knows if that’s how it went down, but I love the line because it feels like a little glimpse into the, I’m sure, really bizarre, creative processes that went into making this movie.
There are so many absolutely genius sketches and jokes in this movie, but I can’t talk about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure without talking about one of it’s most famous scenes: Large Marge. when I was a kid I would always close my eyes during this scene. Pee-wee gets picked up by a truck driver named Large Marge, who immediately begins telling Pee-Wee about a bad accident that happened years ago. At the climax of her story she makes a scary face, which is done with a classic 80s stop motion special effect, clearly designed by Tim Burton. It used to creep me out somthin’ fierce. And it looked like…THIS!”