91 min., 1985
Written by Phil Hartman/Paul Reubens/Michael Varhol
Directed by Tim Burton
My rating: ★★★★★
“I know you are, but what am I?”
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What? Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is totally a horror movie. It’s directed by Tim Burton, so it has to be…and stuff. He’s horror, right?
Okay, as it has become obviously clear from my torrent of Burton reviews and the fact that I did a write-up of friggin’ Ghost, I am not as much of a horror fan as my dark and disturbed peers. However, I do greatly enjoy films that teeter along that genre without fully crossing over. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, in my oh so humble opinion, does so numerous times.
At its heart, the movie is really sweet and endearing. It’s about a literal happy-go-lucky man-child (Paul Reubens) who lives in a colorful, zany house and rides perhaps the most disgustingly beautiful bike I’ve ever seen in any movie, only for it to be stolen, sending Pee-wee on a cross-country adventure to retrieve it. Given that it’s a comedy, and a really funny one at that, there are plenty of great visual gags including Pee-wee in drag, a bullfight gone awry, a gigantic jealous dude chasing Pee-wee for hanging with his girlfriend (Diane Salinger), a badass tequila dance, and the most insane chase sequence ever put on screen. For the most part, it’s lighthearted and charming, and a great movie for folks of any age to watch.
Also, it’s kind of fucked up.
Paul Reubens purposely chose freshman Tim Burton to helm this project after seeing his short films Vincent and Frankenweenie, loving his unapologetic dark imagery and morbid sense of humor. Given the script, one would think a less dark filmmaker would be the best choice, but it’s that very light and dark dichotomy that makes this movie so very memorable.
The very act of Pee-wee’s bike being stolen is one of the first frightening images seen in this movie. After he chains his bicycle (which is another great visual gag) to an animatronic clown at a strip mall set to cheery Danny Elfman music, he returns to find the bike missing and the music taking a sharper, edgier turn as if he were about to be stabbed by Norman Bates. Oh, and that happy waving clown? It’s now cackling and has a contorted, evil grin. It’s so out of place, yet so very perfect because of it.
Then there’s Large Marge (Alice Nunn). While Pee-wee is hitchhiking his way across the country, he’s picked up by a trucker who tells him a graphic story of a car wreck. When she describes one of the victims, she turns into a stop-motion animated monster with bulging eyes and an elongated tongue…and then keeps telling the story as if nothing happened. I won’t say what happens just after she drops him off in front of a diner, but she ends with, “Be sure and tell ’em Large Marge sent ya! *maniacal laugh*” leading to an awesome and frightening payoff.
The nightmare sequences, however, are without a doubt the most disturbing part of this movie, especially considering that Pee-wee and his bike are so close, it may as well be another person. So when a giant stop-motion T-Rex appears out of nowhere and begins devouring the bike mercilessly in front of a helpless and terrified Pee-wee.
Then, he has another nightmare where his dismembered bike is picked up by an ambulance full of scary clowns with afros (?) and led down a hallway, which I swear to God would inspire Beetlejuice, to an emergency room where Pee-wee witnesses it being pieced together by the clowns and the head surgeon, who at first looks relatively normal. That is, until he pulls down his operating mask to reveal evil clown paint around his mouth. The bike is then hoisted up by a claw and dropped into a flaming pot being toked by demons (well, guys in obvious demon costumes but still). Oh, and Danny Elfman cranked up the crazy even more, making everything sound like evil funhouse music under the influence of off-brand narcotics.
Some would think that these nightmare sequences are unnecessary and serve no purpose in furthering the narrative, but they do. They show an incredibly personal connection between a man (boy?) and his bike and an insight into his vivid dreams, which are both childlike and frightening as fuck. Essentially, it’s also a short trip inside Tim Burton’s head, and while I can’t speak for everyone else, I enjoy those trips. Unless Johnny Depp is playing a vampire in the 70s, then he can just piss off.
I could go on even further about the other brilliant aspects of this movie, but since this is a horror site, I will end with saying that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure absolutely fantastic! Not only is it a fun and adorable story with interesting characters and gorgeous imagery, it’s also a perfect example of Tim Burton as a filmmaker, someone who combines lightheartedness and darkness almost too perfectly and enjoys the hell out of every second of it. And obviously while it’s not a direct “horror” movie, it provides enough over-the-top horror elements and scenarios to push its viewers just a smidge out of their comfort zones. I cannot recommend it enough.Have You Read...?