Retro Review: Pee-Wee Double Feature
Clown month rolls on in January, and this week we have a double feature for you starring Paul Reubens as his iconic alter-ego, Pee-Wee Herman. While the choice of Big Top Pee-Wee is obvious, it turns out that Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure actually has more clowns in it. And laughs. So we’ll review them both! Settle in to the adult theater of your choice (too soon?) and get *ahem* comfortable for tonight’s center ring spectacular!
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
This is the movie that made Paul Reubens a house-hold name. His first attempt at writing and starring in a movie was paired with Tim “I secretly created Johnny Depp from a test-tube so we could rule Hollywood together” Burton’s first attempt at directing a feature length film. Aided by collaborations with Phil Hartman on the screen play, plus the wonderfully twisted music of Danny Elfman, and we got the Manhattan Project of comedy. I hear Einstein was a fan…
The story centers around a man-child named Pee-Wee Herman, and his first venture into the wider world. An eccentric who has constructed a dream-world castle of childhood memorabilia, Pee Wee lives a sheltered, structured life of screaming at his breakfast, buying trick bow-ties, and spending his free income (from God only knows what) souping up his prized bicycle. So, a sort of working class every-man, if you will.
Things go wrong when Pee-Wee has his magnificent bike stolen, and embarks on a odyssey to find it. After confronting his arch-nemesis, Francis, and his bodyguard, Odd Job (no seriously), turns up no leads, Pee-Wee organizes a neighborhood watch, and in desperation consults a fortune teller. He is told his bike is hidden in the non-existent basement of the Alamo, and our hero takes off like a shot, crisscrossing the country in search of his soul-mate. After many miss-adventures, Pee-Wee ends up in Hollywood, where he recaptures his bike, and lands the role of a lifetime…as the bell-hop in a big-budget remake of his life story. All’s well that ends well, except for the snakes…
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a tremendous comedy. Paul Reubens’ Peter Pan-esque creation is manic, childish, conceited, and an utter joy to watch. The movie is paced masterfully, managing to tell a fun story, create interesting characters, and even teach valuable life lessons, all while being completely insane, and constantly ratcheting up the hilarity. The dream sequences are pure Tim Burton at his best, including dinosaurs, Mark Holton as the devil in a tight red leotard, and maniacal clown-doctors that are almost as demented as Burton’s vision of Jack Nicholson’s Joker (see, told you there were clowns…) The score is simply beautiful, like a circus calliope that got drafted into a Wagnerian opera.
Pee-Wee fires on all cylinders with his first film, and you would be hard pressed to find a better comedy featuring demented clowns anywhere. Oh, and did I mention Twisted Sister makes a cameo?
Big Top Pee-Wee (1988)
For the big sequel to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Paul Reubens chose to go it alone, and audiences paid a hefty price. The inspired lunacy of Big Adventure and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse came about through a perfect storm of talent. Without Phil Hartman writing, or Tim Burton directing, Big Top Pee-Wee comes across as little more than a vanity project, one last go at a character that perhaps the performer had outgrown.
The first 15 minutes of the film pretty much tells the audience what to expect. We start with a dream sequence of Pee-Wee as a famous singer, crooning to armies of swooning ladies. This, incidentally, sounds a lot like the fabled script for Pee-Wee 3: The Pee-Wee Herman Story. The sequence is funny and light, but a little clunky and nowhere near as demented as the dream shots from Big Adventure. Pee-Wee awakens on his farm (huh?) which is populated by animals who Pee-Wee treats as people, including his talking pig Vance. The setting is a typical farm, without much of the wackiness you would expect of Pee-Wee. Once again, some charming elements, such as cows that give chocolate milk, and Pee-Wee feeding baby birds gummy worms from his mouth feel like the old Pee-Wee, but most of the farm is wasted tedium. Pee-Wee finishes his chores, and it’s time for his date.
Pee-Wee heads to town, where the townspeople all hate him, and we get the hint that maybe they have good reason to. He is childish and conceited, and pretty much makes them all miserable with his antics. If we’re supposed to feel for Pee-Wee as a breath of fresh air in a stuffy town, Reubens falls on his face, because by the end of the sequence, I wanted to run Pee-Wee out of town myself. This is not even covering his date.
Pee-Wee is dating the most beautiful girl in town, the school teacher, Winnie Johnson. She is kind and sweet, though unimaginative. She’s really a thoroughly decent character, but we’re supposed to feel that she is a miss-match for Pee-Wee since she doesn’t know his favorite sandwich, or see the same cloud animals he does, or let him jump on her…in front of school children. Yup, the scene gets creepy real fast, and the same is true of the whole movie. From the adoring fans of the dream, to the Donna Reid school teacher, to the sultry acrobat (Valeria Golino, of Hot Shots fame) who eventually falls for Pee-Wee, we get a strong sense that the actual title of the movie is “Pee-Wee Herman Gets Laid.” Hell, the tag line is: Hero. Lover. Legend. These are probably 3 words that describe the Pee-Wee we knew and loved the LEAST.
Oh, and a circus comes to town and Pee-Wee joins it. The towns people hate it, but end up loving it. Cause of reasons and stuff. Ho hum. Benicio Del Toro is a dog boy in the circus though, so cool. I guess.
Big Top Pee-Wee is a mixed bag. It is certainly a weaker film than its big brother. Big Adventure, and doesn’t even manage to capture the silly pleasure of television’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It does echo some of the more adult humor of the original stage show, The Pee-Wee Herman Show, but ultimately, the decision to take Pee-Wee out of his fantasy play-land and place him into the hum-drum real world handicaps the picture from the get go. Add in the odd sexuality of the piece, and you have a film that shines in moments, but strands you with too many uncomfortable sequences, making the final product disagreeable.
One really feels that Reubens was getting tired of the role, and wanted to see Pee-Wee grow up, and become a more adult character. To have audiences appreciate HIM in a more adult and realistic manner. But we came for Pee-Wee, the delightful fantasy land caricature, not the nuanced human being. When studios tried to show an adult Peter Pan in Hook, they skipped all the boring crap about how Peter earned his CPA (and they didn’t rub your nose in the fact that, yes, the adorable munchkin has kids, and must have had sex!!!) The movie only worked because it was about Peter coming back to fantasy land. I doubt anyone could make an enjoyable comedy about him leaving it.
Reubens has been talking off and on about two additional scripts he’s completed, and they pretty much mirror the movies that have already been made. In one, Pee-Wee’s wacky ensemble of Playhouse pals go on a zany journey, a la Big Adventure, to find a missing friend. In the other, Pee-Wee is discovered by a talent agent and sold as a singing heart-throb (think Beiber meets Elvis) to the masses, but loses his innocence and becomes a jaded mess. I hope we get to see Paul Reubens in his iconic suit and bow tie again, as he is genuinely hilarious. I just hope he learns from past mistakes and keeps Pee-Wee fanciful and care-free, instead of realistic and, well, unfunny.