Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Blu-ray Review)3 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Pee-wee Herman, Elizabeth Daily.
Last week, a Maria Montez movie on these pages — this week, a Pee-wee Herman.
Well, the color schemes aren’t all that dissimilar, nor are worldviews that are, we say, specialized. And in terms of color, Blu-ray punctuates what has always looked like a nifty wax job on that “neat” bicycle Pee-wee possesses for a while — but whose theft puts him the road to meeting (with us) an array of equally colorful characters. These, of course, include eye-popping apparitional trucker “Large Marge”; an unctuously saccharine Alamo tour guide played uproariously by Jan Hooks; a fistful or two of queasy pet store snakes that definitely aren’t made of prop department foam rubber; and a barroom’s worth of bikers who witness a Pee-wee rendition of “Tequila” that has never allowed me to think of The Champs’ No. 1 Billboard hit from early ‘58 in quite the same way (and I bought the single when it came out).
The movie that is now equally celebrated as Tim Burton’s feature debut was released in 1985, the year after I concluded an earlier life as an AFI Theater programmer. This means I never got to schedule it in a double bill with Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist deity Bicycle Thieves (and don’t think I wouldn’t have). However, I did get to review Adventure for USA Today just after I became senior film critic there, whereupon I horrified the editors by giving it a rave and putting it on my year’s 10-best list. One of my colleagues, who soon left for a major big-city daily, lectured me one Friday morning about not just her own humiliation — but the humiliation of her friends for her because she had to work with someone who would do such a thing. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby — in my view, the greatest newspaper film critic ever, but someone tone deaf when it came to broad comedy — didn’t like it, either (nor, if I recall correctly, Burton’s follow-up Beetlejuice). But Pauline Kael had some good things to say about the picture when she finally got around to reviewing it.
At the time, observers with adequate memories noted the similarity of Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee style to that of Pinky Lee, the onetime burlesque comic (also sidekick to Roy Rogers in the latter’s final Republic features) who became a kiddie TV favorite in 1954-55. Until, that is, he collapsed during a live broadcast from what everyone thought was a coronary but was instead a severe sinus attack. The diminutive Pinky’s checkered cap and suit easily rivaled Pee-wee’s bow-tie/pancake make-up look, and Lee had the same penchant for name-calling and tossed-off insults that the professional wussies who control today’s kids’ entertainment try not to allow anymore. But what struck me at the time and still does is the way Pee-wee — very much like the young Jerry Lewis on NBC’s “Colgate Comedy Hour” shows with Dean Martin — could turn on a dime almost within the same line of dialogue and morph from imbecile to the savviest and most conniving sharpie. It is from here that a lot of the movie’s laughs emanate — as well as from Burton’s already distinctive visual style.
For me, Adventure and Beetlejuice remain as the next-to-best career achievements of the recently uneven Burton — after Ed Wood, which is in a cashmere class by itself. At 91 minutes, the payoff is very tight and benefits immensely from then screen newcomer Danny Elfman’s score, which is reminiscent of what Nino Rota was doing in the early Fellini films. And you can see — in the deleted scenes from this even more resplendent straight carry-over from an earlier DVD release — that Burton had a pretty keen sense of what to include and what to excise. What’s more, Adventure is, as I said at the time, “life-affirming” beyond even its celebration of pluck. Who else would rescue snakes from the burning pet shop?
My USA Today career survived (well, for a while, anyway), and no editors had major nervous breakdowns over any of my reviews again until a bunch of them had to shut the doors and have a meeting over my much later rave for Starship Troopers. That one stood the test of time as well, via a piece that recently circulated the Internet about five ways in which Paul Verhoeven’s insecti-mania anticipated world events. And in terms of great adventures, the best-looking woman in my high school class soon sent me a Pee-wee Herman T-shirt — the kind of treasure you don’t get for overrating Oscar hopefuls like Chocolat, The Prince of Tides or the Paul Haggis Crash.