BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
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.
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
The screenplay by Reubens and the late,
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
||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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
CHAPTER: THE EARLY YEARS