Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

(Tim Burton, USA, 1985)


The career of Pee-wee Herman (aka Paul Reubens) has played out its brief but splendid trajectory – from modest beginnings in alternative theatre, through to mass cult stardom on the children’s TV series Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986-1990), slightly uncertain departures from form (like the second feature film, Big Top Pee-wee [1988]), and finally an abrupt ending in a porno theatre (1991) worthy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.


Pee-wee’s persona, and his art, is the dance of breathless suspensions, quantum associative leaps, the sublime linking of ideological opposites ... often in a few consecutive seconds of the one work. In an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the scenario revolved around his childish, innocent wish to fly – and his Christian act of sacrifice in handing his one opportunity to realise this wish along to someone in greater need. But, finally, all his playmates learn what he has done, and pool their psychic energies to grant him the wish, after all. In the closing moments of the show, Pee-wee flies (through a tackily fake video space) and sings to us the sentiments of Spielbergian Utopia: “I’m the luckiest boy in the world” – an inspiring example of all our collective yearnings come true.


But, in the very next line of the song, there’s a cynical slap in our faces, the hip betrayal of sloppy sentiment: “I’m so much luckier than you”. The TV audience laughs along  in complicity with this triumphant moment of sarcasm. And then the softening: “... and I’m going to share my luck with you”. The music modulates, Pee-wee smiles sweetly, the audience oohs and aahs: the affect is total. Who knows what we’re being told, let alone what we’re being sold, by Pee-wee and his playhouse? It was a magnificent mindfuck.


But even if his fifteen minutes of fame are over, we must never cease paying homage to the genius and uniqueness of Pee-wee Herman – particularly as it incandesces in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, thanks to the vision of director Tim Burton (Beetlejuice [1988], Batman [1989]).


From its first, giddily disorienting moments inside Pee-wee’s own private playhouse, Burton takes us through a magical, kitsch universe where colours, shapes, sizes and scales constantly transform and surprise us. Plot-wise, the film hangs on little more than a nasty antagonist for Pee-wee (Mark Holton as Francis Buxton), and the search for a stolen bicycle. But its open, road-movie structure allows for a myriad for shifting scenes and eccentric characters, allowing Pee-wee to reveal the many sides of his amazingly resourceful, Peter Pan-like character.


Furthermore, if the postmodern is anything, it’s Pee-wee Herman. With Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the reputed difference between modernism and its post becomes very clear. Modernism extends from Winsor McKay (Little Nemo [1911], Gertie the Dinosaur [1914]) through to Jerry Lewis, with Warner Bros cartoons in between. Pee-wee is something else, something different in this history; he introduces a whole new problematic into the Lewisian mixture of cartoon stylistics and childhood intensities.


Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is in the same cultural and emotional place as the Coens’ Raising Arizona (1987), and takes a few more left turns to reach that place than most commentators have realised (since the arty stuff that provides their reference point evinces “new” aesthetic properties that were already run-of-the-mill in Robert Clampett’s modernist cartoons circa 1937). Let’s take Umberto Eco’s idea (in the 1983 “postscript” book of reflections on his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose) that postmodernism is modernism replayed, but without innocence. I can only risk the incoherence of suggesting that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the return of innocence – without innocence.


Pee-wee does incredibly strange things to the dialectic of psychological avowal and disavowal, the famous “willing suspension of disbelief” caught in the phrase “I know this is not real, but all the same …”. Pee-wee knows all this and more, because he is a child – and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure turns all willing spectators into children. Or maybe meta-children. Whew! Assignment: try to describe the internal logic of the fictional world of this film. Woof! There’s something about the incessant joining and splitting of real and phantasmic here – for Pee-wee as for us – which is definitely Raśl Ruiz without the playful-monstrous double bind of High French Culture.


At any rate, Raúl and Pee-wee shake hands on the founding myth of the postmodern: Peter Pan (cf. City of Pirates [1983], Manoel on the Island of Marvels [1984], etc). And now, at the mention of Pan, we must fly very far and fast from Disney and Spielberg to our third true postmodern soul, the Joe Dante of Gremlins (1984) and Explorers (1985), and thus to the question of emotion.


I guess you need to have been brought up on Chuck Jones (Pepé Le Pew, Chow Hound [1951]) to now understand how representations comprised solely of ciphers and clichés can be so unbearably moving – and how, today, movies can be both absolutely inside and outside such constructions of affect. Whatever. When Pee-wee goes to the drive-in, he advances the best theory of spectatorship since the Gremlins hijacked a picture theatre.


There’s plenty more to say about Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. But can it be said? There are films we must value at a certain moment simply because they introduce a drift, an intensity, a tone never quite experienced before in cinema, films which are (in the healthiest sense) perverse. Pee-wee Herman is a monument to perversity – in the most refreshing and liberating way. He is both child and adult, gay and straight, innocent and knowing, sentimental and cynical. What finer role-model could we ever wish for?


So Hail Pee-wee Herman; and roll on with the big adventure!

MORE Burton: Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

© Adrian Martin August 1987 / August 1988 / December 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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