Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Michael Varhol
Produced by Richard Gilbert Abramson, William E. McEuen, and Robert Shapiro
Starring Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, and Mark Holton
If I really wanted to impress you, I’d tell you that I can quote every single line from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. I’ve probably seen it a hundred times, if not more. My family used to repeatedly check out the VHS tape from the library, and I remember thinking that it was very, very cool. And it is very cool, but not in the sense I had back then.
I thought Pee-Wee lived like a king. I understood that his house, clothes, and general way of being weren’t how most people lived, but I wished it was. His house was fantastic. An enormous amount of detail went into his bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, and front yard. It made perfect sense to me that such an awesome guy would have the world’s coolest bike.
I don’t think there was a single character in that movie that four-year-old me didn’t think was awesome, save for Francis Buxton and his dad. I didn’t pick up on there being any form of humor in the design of their house and I thought that was how rich people lived. I thought that rich adults had pool-sized bathtubs, that they had intricate ship models for bath toys, and that having a room full of taxidermy safari animals was typical. Actually, I don’t know many rich people; is that how they live?
The beginning of the movie is fun, but it goes into high gear when Pee-Wee hits the road. I was totally amazed by his road trip to Hollywood. He went to places I hadn’t imagined: a biker bar, a hobo car, a Hollywood set, The Alamo, and a dinosaur’s mouth. Each scene had me totally mesmerized, and it gave me a lifelong love of road trips. I love checking out new places and getting into weird little scrapes. If I have some time open and you want to drive somewhere, let’s go for it.
On the flipside, I think this must have been the source of my coulrophobia. The animatronic clown that Pee-Wee locks his bike to always seemed like it had an actual person hiding inside it, and then when his bike gets stolen its facial expression changes to pure evil. Later Pee-Wee has the nightmare with the clown doctors operating on his bike. It was indescribably terrifying. I had to fast-forward those scenes or else I’d get chills down my spine.
Despite the clowns, the movie had a happy ending. Pee-Wee went on an odyssey to track down his cool bike, he got it back, and made a ton of friends along the way. Altogether, the offbeat humor, sense of adventure, and optimistic message made a huge impression on me. I never put much thought into why it had such an impact; it was just a funny movie that hit my nostalgic nerve.
I recently rewatched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to figure out what makes this particular movie from my childhood stand out, and now I’m actually surprised I never picked up on the message sooner.
The first scene is a dream sequence of Pee-Wee racing his bike in the Tour de France. He is about to be crowned the winner and is taking in the glory for himself. He doesn’t share the victory with teammates, friends, family, or even his bike. It’s all about Pee-Wee the individual. He wakes up before the crown is placed on his head and is followed by the greatest scene of 1980s cinema (i.e. the Mousetrap breakfast machine).
After finishing his breakfast Pee-Wee goes outside to retrieve his bike from its secret spot, a location only accessible to him. His bike must be shielded and protected: it is his method of navigating life outside of his awesome house. The bike is to Pee-Wee what the rug is to Lebowski: it’s his sense of constancy in the outer world.
When Francis asks to buy the bike as his birthday present to himself, Pee-Wee reacts by raining insults on him. For someone to even ask to trade the bike for money is laughable, and he dismisses the idea immediately. Even in public Pee-Wee goes to great lengths to secure his bike with a preposterously long bike chain, even checking on it in between his two chores.
Once he leaves the bike shop and discovers that the bike has been stolen, Pee-Wee’s sense of security is destroyed. The clown that appeared so cheerful earlier suddenly appears menacing, a shift in perception that overtakes his life as a whole. He wanders the streets aimlessly without his bike. He quickly realizes that Francis is the likely suspect and breaks into his house, walks fully clothed into the bathtub and physically confronts him. Francis and his dad assure Pee-Wee that they do not have the bike, and his trust in his judgment is further shaken.
Later that night he hosts a meeting at his house about the missing bike, which quickly escalates into a paranoid interrogation of everyone there. He has a room full of friends to help him find his bike, but rather than accepting their support he is suspicious of them. He lashes out, driving his friends away, and then tells Dottie “I don’t need anybody!”
Without a support system he is vulnerable to outside influences, and he literally exposes himself to the elements. Pee-Wee goes for a walk through an alley-way, in the rain, and hisses at street-toughs. He goes to see Madame Ruby, a fortune-teller who claims that his bike is in the basement at The Alamo. He believes her and thanks her, and this is actually the first step in Pee-Wee’s transformation. By placing his trust in another person he is effectively stepping back from his self-imposed seclusion.
The next day he begins his trip, and so begins the cycle of Pee-Wee forming friendships, confronting danger, and then forming more friendships. First, he buddies up to Mickey the fugitive, but Mickey turns him away with the same “I’m a loner” speech that Pee-Wee gave to Dottie. This is the first time in the film that Pee-Wee is rejected by another person, and processing the sting of it is the next step in his metamorphosis.
Following this, Pee-Wee goes on to befriend Simone, Hobo Jack, and Satan’s Helpers. But Pee-Wee’s major change takes place after he finds out that The Alamo doesn’t have a basement. Instead of feeling further victimized and withdrawing further into himself, Pee Wee reaches out to someone he can trust. He calls Dotty, apologizes for attacking everyone, and admits he needs her help.
But the true test of Pee-Wee is still to come. He sees the TV clip featuring his bike and takes off for Hollywood to steal it back. He sneaks on to a set and takes off on his bike, racing through set after set to get away from studio security. I could go on for a while on the weaving of illusions throughout P.W.B.A., but that’s for another time.
He manages to get the security guards off his trail, but puts his escape on hold when he sees a pet store on fire. He rescues all of the animals, and it is only through this act of selflessness that Pee-Wee is able to keep his bike (and with it his sense of stability in the world). He is placed in custody for theft, but the studio executives have no interest in pressing charges. They’ve heard about his adventure and they want to buy the rights to his story.
The film premiere is at the drive-in back in Pee-Wee’s hometown, and the audience is full of his friends, old and new. He hands out treats and visits with them all, but then leaves the movie with Dottie. She is surprised that he doesn’t want to watch the movie, but the new Pee-Wee isn’t one to revel in his own glory. He says, “I don’t need to see it Dottie. I lived it.” Armed with a social network, selflessness, and trust, Pee-Wee has evolved into a happier, more secure person.
And that is why I love this movie.