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Rather than develop his own project for his first feature, it was a movie that found Burton. Paul Reubens created the popular comic character Pee-wee Herman in 1978 at the famous Groundlings comedy improvisation group. He later staged his own show that was turned into a HBO special. Other appearances on TV and cameos in movies made the character something of an icon, and Reubens decided to bring his alter ego to the big screen. Although his show had a somewhat adult flavour, with lots of innuendo, the film would be more childlike and it needed a director with a fresh vision and the right sensibilities.

Bonni Lee, an executive at Warner Brothers, heard about Frankenweenie and arranged a screening for Reubens, who knew straight away that Tim Burton was the right man for the job. The rest, as they say, is history. Burton would later say it was the easiest time he ever had getting a job.

The screenplay by Reubens and the late, great Phil Hartman obviously appealed to Burton (though he has often admitted in later interviews that he wouldn't know a good script if it hit him in the face). The freewheeling nature of the script was the perfect template for Burton to showcase his fledgling visual style.

The film was a low budget affair, costing around $6 million, and it's doubtful that anyone, even the studio behind it, expected much from the finished project. For Burton, though, it would be a chance to finally display all his obsessions on the big screen, and hopefully show he was one of the rare animators who could make the successful leap to live action feature films.

In contrast to Burton's later films, the main titles go for the classic white credits over black (a clear sign of budget constraints). The only hints the viewer gets of the film to come are the colorful lettering in "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and, of course, Danny Elfman's wonderfully jaunty main theme.

The film opens with a dream sequence of Pee-Wee winning the Tour de France (although Pee-Wee's visualisation of France looks a lot like California) clearly outlining the character's obsession with his bike from the start. Once Pee-Wee awakes we get to witness his full childlike nature and his amazing house that is full of every toy a kid (even one in an adult's body) could wish for.
Pee-Wee's breakfast-making machine is a device Burton would revisit in later films. Interestingly, similar machines appeared in two other films released the same year - Back to the Future and Brazil. It's amusing that, after preparing this lavish breakfast Pee-Wee only takes a few bites from his Mr. T cereal (a commentary on how Americans waste their food, perhaps?) Though this does explain how he weighs less than 100 pounds.
The unveiling of Pee-Wee's bike is shot like James Bond receiving a new gadget from Q, and Pee-Wee (still too emotionally juvenile for a real woman) treats it like it's his girlfriend. Pee-Wee's encounter with Francis, as well as displaying the immature nature of both characters, also sets up what will be the major conflict of the film.
Though it's not actually a goof in correctly formatted version of the film, in the pan and scan version when Pee-Wee is pulling the long chain out of the basket in his bike to secure it, it's obvious that there's a hole in the bottom of the basket which the chain is being fed through. Some audiences who only saw the movie on TV or video actually thought this was an intentional post-modern goof.

Shortly after, we're introduced to the main female character in the film, Dottie. She's clearly romantically interested in Pee-Wee, but he tries to find any way to get out of going to the drive-in with her.

His tongue-in-cheek line to her(which is later paraphrased in the film version of his life) could be used to sum up many later Burton protagonists as well: "There's a lot of things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand. You don’t want to get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A Rebel".

Pee-Wee discovering his bike missing is treated like a horror scene. Everyone seems to have a bike except Pee-Wee.

Soon after, there's the first of two Godzilla homages when Francis is pretending to be a monster in his bathtub before Pee-Wee bursts in to confront him.

The film introduces some of Burton's signature visual styles with the spirals on the wheels of Pee-Wee's bike, and the black and white patterns on Francis's bathroom floor and towel.

There's an interestingly framed shot soon after, when it appears a stuffed tiger is about to leap on Francis as he sits at home.

There's some great lines in the meeting Pee-Wee calls about his missing bicycle. "I bought this pen one hour before my bike was stolen! Why? What's the significance? I don't know!"

Pee-Wee wanders the dark streets and the funniest verbal exchange in the film occurs (it doesn't even have any dialogue on Pee-Wee's part).

When some punks tell him they don't take kindly to strangers around here, Pee-Wee simply hisses, sending the tough gang members running.

The simple conceit of the hero’s beloved bicycle being stolen then serves as the framework for a road movie featuring a series of hilarious sketches and character vignettes. As Pee-Wee travels across America searching for his bike, we are treated to gentle satire on various character clichés (fake psychic, escaped criminal, lovelorn waitress). Ironically, Pee-Wee's bike is glimpsed going in the other direction early in his quest.

The wonderfully cartoonish visuals include a scene where Pee-Wee's eyes glow in the dark just like an animated character.

The Large Marge sequence is a very effective use of stop motion and a fun jump moment. It became one of the mostly fondly remembered images in the film and one Burton would return to later on.

The famous dinosaur gift shop in Cabazon, California serves as the perfect location for Pee-Wee's encounter with Simone, and the red dinosaur later shows up in Pee-Wee's dream (which, like all his dreams, is about his bike in mortal peril). The scene between Pee-Wee and Simone in the dinosaur has some subtle innuendo (“Let’s talk about your big but”).
There's a great scene where Pee-Wee arrives at the Alamo (where he believes his bike to be) and has to endure an insufferable tour guide played by Jan Hooks, who improvised most of her role. Pee-Wee leaves in disgust when he discoveres the building doesn't even have a basement.

This is soon followed by the classic scene where Pee-Wee falls afoul of the Satan's Helpers bikers.

Of the numerous celebrity cameos in the film, one many people won't spot is Cassandra Peterson (better known as Elvira) out of her usual costume playing the female member of the Satan's Helpers in this scene.

After telling the bikers to shush while he's on the phone, Reubens does a great bit of acting where he lets out horrified gag after he knocks over all their bikes.

However, he soon wins them over by displaying his mad dancing skills to the song "Tequila". They even give him a bike (which he promptly crashes in a great sight gag).

While recovering in hospital, Pee-Wee has a scary dream with evil clowns (a recurring Burton motif) and Francis as the devil. All of the dream sequences are very inventive visually.

Pee-Wee finally recovers his beloved bike from a bratty child star, who of course acts like an angel when he's on camera.

It's those guys from Krull!

However, it's not the end of his adventures as he has to try and evade pursuit from the security at Warner Bros. studios.

The chase through the back lot is hilarious, traveling through several movie genres and even including a cameo from 80's hair metal band Twisted Sister.

This chase could be seen as a tour through Burton's favourite movie genres, including as it does a beach movie (shades of Luau), a Christmas film (Burton would later make three films set at Christmas) and a monster film (Godzilla). This scene, as well as the later altering of the facts of Pee-Wee’s story to make a more exciting movie, show that even early in his career Burton knew how to mock the conventions of Hollywood.

Ironically, after behaving selfishly throughout the whole film, it only when Pee-Wee does something heroic (rescuing pets from a burning store) that the authorities capture him.

However, it all turns out well when a movie executive tells Pee-Wee he can keep his bike if they let the studio make his story into a movie.

Commercialism wins out and Pee-Wee even gets a cameo in the finished movie (badly dubbed, of course). Nearly all of the people Pee-Wee encountered on his journey come to the drive-in premiere, and Dottie finally gets her wish as she and Pee-Wee ride off together before the film is even finished. As Pee-Wee says about the wholly inaccurate movie, "I don't have to see it, I lived it."

Reubens plays the eponymous child/man Pee-wee Herman pretty much exactly the same as in his earlier live show (though with the innuendo obviously turned down a little). Some viewers are unable to get over their annoyance with the character’s childish nature and high-pitched voice, but if you’re on Pee-Wee’s wavelength then he’s the perfect guide.

Everyone else in the cast is a supporting act to Pee-Wee, but they all manage to make their brief screen time entertaining. Special mention must go to Judd Omen as escaped convict Mickey, Diane Salinger as the Francophile (and rather manly) Simone and Alice Nunn as the very scary Large Marge. Phil Hartman has a cameo at the end.

Burton's direction is remarkably assured in his first feature film. The comic timing is perfect in nearly every scene and the switching between genres is seamless. The dream sequences in particular show how Burton could bring his animation background to work successfully in a live action film. If it hadn't been a kid's film, Burton's feature directorial debut probably would have got a lot more attention from critics.

The film makes good uses of its locations, which nearly all had to be found within a short driving distance from LA due to budgetary constraints. Memorable locations include the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade where Pee-Wee loses his bike and the exteriors of the Alamo - one of the few far-off locations used.

Several scenes were cut out of the film before the release. Some of the deleted sequences actually improved the film by their absence. For example, Amazing Larry was originally introduced as a character in the magic shop. However, the removal of that scene meant that Pee-Wee's later line, "Is this something you can share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry?" is more of an amusing non sequitur than it would have otherwise. The chase scene on the Warner Bros. backlot was even longer, and included a western sequence (and the use of Pee-Wee's boomerang bowtie).

The many faces of Oingo Boingo

The film is perfectly accompanied by Danny Elfman's fun score. Burton’s decision to choose the Oingo Boingo front man to write his first film score was a stroke of genius. Elfman's only previous film work was writing the songs and incidental music for the cult film, Forbidden Zone (1980).

Even Elfman was amazed that Burton, who was a fan of his band, thought he was capable of writing a full film score, but the composer, who had no formal training, rose to the challenge remarkably. He drew on a wide range of influences, from Bernard Herrmann to Nino Rota (the composer for Frederico Fellini’s films), to create a score as memorable and fun as the film itself.

As enjoyable as the movie is, the main interest for Burton aficionados is in spotting the outsider and alienation themes that would be handled much more maturely in his later works. Pee-Wee is the first of many Burton alter egos (even though the character was fully developed before Burton joined the project, the director has admitted that he can't direct a film unless he sees something of himself in one of the main characters). Though his outsider status is more for comical than emotional effect, Pee-Wee is still very much a character out of step with those around him.

There's a sexual undercurrent to many of the scenes, which is surprising in a kid's film. Mickey looks favourably at Pee-Wee when he dresses up like a woman to avoid a police road block, which raises all kinds of questions. Pee-Wee himself is clearly threatened by women, judging by his attempts to avoid going on a date with doting Dottie.

Pee-Wee slides down his own bat pole (which also magically changes his costume), there's a Batman mask in the magic shop and the Batmobile (from the Adam West TV show) makes a cameo appearance on the Warner back lot. A foreshadowing of things to come?

The film that introduced a wide audience to the brilliant imagination of Burton is still one of the funniest 'children's films' ever made. Naturally, there's no deep message to this movie, but Burton does manage to weave in some of the perverse humor that would be more prevalent in his later films. The film also makes a valid criticism of how Hollywood treats "true" stories - the drive-in finale where Pee-Wee’s true story is turned into a James Bond style action movie is priceless.

Overall, it was a charming debut for Burton that showed how he could subvert what many filmmakers would have treated as just a stupid kid's film and turn it into a comedy classic. It remains one of the most re-watchable of all his films.

Despite the small nature of the film, Pee-Wee received a big Hollywood premiere. It was a surprise success making over $40 million at the U.S. box office. Reviews were mixed, with some even calling it one of the worst movies of the year, though a few critics did praise the director for managing to make a live-action cartoon. However, a typical comment was that made by Bill Hagen, who stated in his review in The San Diego Union-Tribune that, “Tim Burton doesn't so much direct as oversee, sort of like a traffic cop.”

The success of the film led to the creation of Pee-wee's Playhouse, which was a regular fixture of children's TV until 1991, when Reubens was involved in a highly publicised arrest at a porno theater.

Despite having a hit to his credit, Burton didn't make another film for almost three years. Reportedly he was offered a lot of "talking animal" movies and other projects he had no interest in. Some might have expected Burton to helm the sequel to his first film, Big Top Pee-Wee. However, Randal Kleiser directed it instead. While fairly entertaining (and featuring another Elfman score) it lacked much of the magic of the first film, clearly showing how much Burton had brought to Pee-Wee, a character he believed in when most people didn't.

While he was searching for his next film project, Burton did direct an episode of the new Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series. The Jar (which aired in 1986) was a memorably creepy story with Griffin Dunne carrying around a sinister head in a jar. It also featured the second collaboration between Burton and his new composer of choice, Danny Elfman.

While it has occasionally been rerun on TV, the episode is currently unavailable on VHS or DVD. It would only be a taster for the ghoulish fantasy Burton would direct for his next feature film.






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