Jan. 30, 2012

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Pee-wee Herman, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton

What it's about. This slapstick comedy marked the feature debut of director Tim Burton, and introduced cult character Pee-wee Herman to a wide audience. Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) is clearly an adult, but acts like a strange, strident, and retro pre-adolescent. There's no properly describing Pee-wee, but then there's no need to, since he remains in popular culture to the present day.

In any event, Pee-wee's prized possession is a gadget-ridden bicycle with an expensive, flashy paint job. It is coveted and stolen by Pee-wee's adolescent neighbor Francis (Mark Holton), who is spoiled rotten by a wealthy father (Ed Herlihy).

Pee-wee is obsessed with recovering his bike, to the angst of Dottie (Elizabeth Daily), a short cute blonde with an incomprehensible crush on Pee-wee. Pee-wee visits unethical (aren't they all?) fortune teller Erica Yohn, who tells him that the bike is in the basement of the Alamo.

Thus begins Pee-wee's big adventure to Texas. Along the way he encounters a dangerous criminal on the lam (Judd Omen), the ghost of trucker Large Marge (Alice Nunn), and unduly friendly waitress Simone (Diane Salinger). Pee-wee is also obligated to dance in weird fashion to "Tequila" to pacify a rowdy motorcycle gang. At last, Pee-wee reaches the Alamo, only to be laughed at by tour guide Jan Hooks ("Designing Women") when he asks about the basement.

But don't worry about Pee-wee or his bicycle. They are happily re-united by film's end, and in the process, Pee-wee somehow becomes a movie star. Among the cameos are aged comic Milton Berle, murdered comedian Phil Hartman, temperamental child actor Jason Hervey ("Wonder Years"), glam-rock group Twisted Sister, blonde beauty Morgan Fairchild ("Falcon Crest"), and James Brolin ("Hotel"), the Hollywood he-man version of Pee-wee.

How others will see it. Pee-wee's Big Adventure was a box office smash, and led to further success for both Burton and Pee-wee, the former as a top rank director, the latter as the star of a remarkable Saturday morning television show.

Today, the user ratings are fairly high and surprisingly consistent. There is an expected moderate drop-off with age. The under 18 crowd gives it a 7.5, while the over 45 gang pegs it at 6.6. No one, though, says that the movie is so funny I forgot to laugh.

How I felt about it. This is classic Pee-wee. He was already famous for a cable special and many appearances on David Letterman. He also made a sequel, Big Top Pee-wee, but that was a flop, and his career was further derailed by an arrest at an adult movie theater.

But Pee-wee's Saturday morning show was better than this movie, probably because it was heavily structured. It seems that Pee-wee, like many children, thrive on structure, so that they don't end up dressed like a nun, attacked by Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, or chased by a jealous lumberjack carrying a giant dinosaur bone.

The curious thing about Pee-wee is how well liked he is, aforementioned lumberjack aside. Dottie, in particular, is oblivious to the fact that Pee-wee looks like a combination of Barney Fife and Alfalfa from "Our Gang," sounds like a drag queen with a sinus condition, and acts like a nerdy, spoiled twelve-year-old. No self-respecting woman would patiently pursue such a man. Or buy him a bus ticket from San Antonio to Los Angeles.

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