Watching Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure For the First Time
I guess I just never got Pee-Wee Herman. As a kid his show kind of creeped me out. I didn’t and still don’t really get what’s funny about him. The idea of a wide-eyed, unflappably optimistic kid in a grown-up’s body, overcoming all obstacles with his infectiously silly energy, is a great bit in theory, but in execution I think Pee-Wee always rang false (and, as I said, a little terrifying) to me. I think for a bit like that to hold up, you need to commit to the character in a way Pee-Wee just never did. There was always something external, something dark and cynical about it that undermined what seemed to be the whole point of the character. And maybe the cynicism is part of the character, too, but I think that only works if there’s something else going on — some element of satire or subversion, or another character to act as a counterpoint. Or at least a straight man.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure doesn’t have any of those things to speak of. Or at least not as far as I can tell. It’s a soft, two-dimensional, consequence-less world in which Pee-Wee is mostly accepted without reservation, but it’s also a world that is weird, colorful, confusing and often scary. It’s a world without any straight men or realism to temper it, and because of that it’s hard to get a handle on what constitutes a joke. Are we supposed to laugh at the way Pee-Wee acts? What about the way people treat him? Are we meant to see Pee-Wee as an equal or below us? Is it all supposed to be as creepy as it seems? For what reason?
It’s not a bad movie. I actually enjoyed it. But that enjoyment was tempered with a greasy sheen of disappointment. Pee-Wee is just a confusing character, with often contradicting motivations. And the movie built around him is similarly confusing. The characters in it don’t have any real weight and mostly serve to move the plot forward, like a series of sketches where each new scene partner tells Pee-Wee what to do next. Pee-Wee generally helps them in return, which is nice, but if the brief interactions they have aren’t funny and don’t have any real consequence, why are they telling this story?
I gotta take issue with Tim Burton’s direction, too. His super-specific brand of weirdness has started to look pretty precious after 25 years — especially in this, his directorial debut, where the Tim Burton Style® seems more broad and rudimentary and less connected to the story being told. And without any real fantasy conceit to the story, as in Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands, the dutch angles, funhouse lighting, claymation accents and oompah-heavy Danny Elfman score just feel unnecessary.
I can dissect the film and the characters all I want, but I can’t really condemn a movie on this site without citing the humor. Fortunately for this ol’ crab, the humor is pretty weak, too. Paul Reubens is a funny guy, and it’s obvious that Pee-Wee is a character he’s put a ton of thought and talent and energy into. The physical stuff he gets to do is a lot of fun, and his reactions and giggles are fun in appropriate doses. But they rarely pass for jokes on their own, and I wish they were used as punctuation rather than punchlines. There’s so much great potential here for solid jokes, and it’s largely wasted. You’ve got a great, totally bizarre character on an adventure — that gives you precocious kid jokes, fish-out-of-water jokes, road-trip jokes, crime-solving jokes, all begging to be made at every turn, but these opportunities are ignored way more often than they’re taken. There are a few good jokes here and there — the basement briefing scene, the pet shop rescue scene, and little one-off gags here and there (“Deep in the Heart of Texas!”) — but those feel like exceptions to the rule, and with such fertile ground everywhere, it’s frustrating to spend so much would-be joke time with twee set pieces and crazy camera angles. Why not spend some time fleshing out the potentially hilarious rivalry with Pee-Wee’s nemesis Francis rather than showing the lengthy development of Pee-Wee’s non-relationship with the truck stop waitress? Why not show more of Pee-Wee’s ups and downs, broaden his range of reactions, rather than glossing over entire situations with a “Hah!” and a wave while he skips off to the next scene? There are more biker jokes to make. More Alamo jokes. More fugitive and rebel and Hollywood jokes. Why waste time with extended clown-hospital dream sequences?
But in classic Burton form, there aren’t so much jokes as quirkily amusing situations, and like Beetlejuice, it almost seems unfair to dissect the gags when there are so few of them. Which is a shame, because there is so much room for good stuff, here more than in most (if not all) other Burton films.
The naive man-child who beats the odds is a good character, but it’s one that has been done better since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Spongebob Squarepants comes immediately to mind, because it takes the potential of the world and characters it creates and runs with it. The world Spongebob lives in is truly bizarre, it’s full of funny gags and situations, and the characters around him act as either straight men or partners in crazy, depending on what a particular bit needs. Spongebob is a guy who is likeable and irritating, idiotic and inspiring, simultaneously, and he has clear motivations without cynicism or fakery. He’s like Pee-Wee with a more clear-cut purpose, and a lot more jokes. And I’d be willing to bet the character is inspired by him, too.
But that’s the real rub of my job for this column. I can’t only look at what it did then, I have to recognize what it does (or in this case, doesn’t do) now. And as far as the comedy is concerned, it’s been done better, more relatable and funnier since 1985. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure holds up as a pretty cute, pretty good-looking, pretty strange film. But as a comedy? I’m afraid it doesn’t, if it ever did. If it were in the hands of a director less concerned with his own weird style and more interested in the unmitigated, wall-to-wall silliness I think Pee-Wee’s world is supposed to contain, I think you’d be on to something. As it is, though, it feels like an experiment in style and character that doesn’t do justice to the potential of either the character or the director. Is it so wrong to expect more?