Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Warner Bros. 1985.

Before watching the movie:

I watched an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse once and I didn’t get it. I wasn’t repelled by it, it just didn’t make sense. Everything seemed random for the sake of being random, and it was like an educational children’s show without a lesson, a story, or a point.

So why am I getting ready to watch the Pee-wee Herman movie? Because it looks like it’s got a story and possibly a point. It’s a vehicle for Paul Reubens, and vehicles go places.

After watching the movie:

Pee-wee Herman is an adult child in love with his really cool super-customized bike. His rich rival Francis Buxton announces to Pee-wee that Mr. Buxton told him he could have anything he wanted for his birthday, and Francis wants Pee-wee’s bike, but Pee-wee won’t sell it at any price. While going out shopping, Pee-wee’s bike gets stolen, and Francis is the prime suspect, but he doesn’t have it. When the police won’t put every officer they have on the hunt for it, Pee-wee goes to a psychic who tells him that his bike is in the Alamo’s basement, and Pee-wee sets off hitchhiking across the country to try to recover it.

I think the strength of extreme naive eccentric characters is putting them in normal settings and watching things get weird around them. It’s what works for Mr. Bean, and it’s what works for Pee-wee in this movie. There’s a pretty long day in the life sequence introducing him, his bike, and his hometown that’s necessary for letting us get to know him and his friends, but watching Pee-wee interact with either nobody at all or people who already understand him is easily the dullest part of the movie.

There’s a creepy dynamic I’ve seen with childlike adults/adult-sized children in media that is exemplified with this movie. While Pee-Wee is respected as a fellow kid by kids who know him, and even men who’ve never met him before recognize him as a kid, women throw themselves at him. I think it’s supposed to be about being refreshingly honest and unassuming, but what it usually comes off as is “woman seeks intimacy with someone who cannot provide adult-level intimacy”. Imagine a middle-aged woman pressing a ten-year old boy to spend romantic time alone with her, and that’s what I see when the “boy” is Pee-wee. It’s at least as disturbing as aging male stars with twenty-something love interests who could be their children or grandchildren to me. At least those twenty-somethings understand what they’re doing within the context of the story. I should note that Dottie relates to Pee-wee about on his level, and while it’s a little unclear if she’s meant to be an adult child or just an adult, the fact that she’s portrayed as understanding what Pee-wee has to offer and meeting him there is what makes that relationship mostly work.

When I saw that this movie was directed by Tim Burton, I expected there would be a stylized element that might work well with Pee-wee’s world. And for the most part, the tone works. Pee-wee’s frequent nightmares about his missing bike are a place where I think Burton’s imaginative elements play to the point where it’s less of a Pee-wee Herman movie and more of a Tim Burton movie, but they serve the story despite being a little outlandish. Pee-wee’s theme seems overplayed, but maybe that’s just because it’s a relatively simple theme that doesn’t go with very much. It doesn’t seem to be related to the show either, so I don’t really see a reason why the music couldn’t be more varied.

Putting Pee-wee into grounded contexts sets a tone I could really get behind. It’s not 100% true life, but the caricatures of American places provide their own satiric humor independent of Pee-wee. I’m glad the character has been able to work outside the tv show that didn’t appeal to me.

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