Nobody in my house would take me to see Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Mom liked Pee-Wee, but only knew him from his original HBO special, which I was not allowed to see (It's amazing how innocent that special seems now. Other than a mildly risque gag about mirrored shoes, the whole thing's not nearly as adult as it seemed at the time). My stepdad, being muy macho above all things, found Pee-Wee too effete for his John Wayne tastes. This seemed like a film I was destined to sit out.
I can remember rolling around on the carpet (haven't done that in a while), talking on the kitchen wall phone to my slightly older cousin Matt, who'd seen the film on opening weekend and remembered every single solitary detail. He described Pee-Wee's whacked-out house and tricked-out bike in pain-staking detail, peppering our conversation with choice bits of dialogue ("I remember...the Alamo..."). We'd call them "spoilers" now, but I was begging for them, so he spoiled every bit to my perfectly willing ears -- the fortune teller, the mattress tag-ripping ex-con, Large Marge, and, yes, the Alamo.
I ended up seeing the movie with my mom on VHS upon its release, and, surprisingly, Matt really hadn't spoiled a thing. No mere description could relay how bananas the movie is. The "HA HA! ha-ha-ha" Pee-Wee imitation from my cousin couldn't come close to capturing Pee-Wee Herman as a living, breathing human character as he's portrayed by Paul Reubens in the film. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was released twenty-five years ago today, and I love it as much now as I did when I was ten. Maybe even more.
Paul Reubens' Pee-Wee Herman is a remarkable, unique creation -- combining late-50s/early-60s kids' show kitsch with a freakish, uncontrollably boundless joy bordering on the insane, then tempered with a modern edge of sarcastic (but gentle) wit. It's the kind of pure creation that could only come from the imagination of one single individual. No one else could've (or would've) created Pee-Wee Herman, and no one else could've mined such a hilarious balance between the obnoxious and the endearing as Paul Reubens did.
So, what's the difference then between the Pee-Wee Herman in Big Adventure and the one who appears in Big Top Pee-Wee? In revisiting Big Adventure for the anniversary of its release, I noticed something that Big Top Pee-Wee doesn't have, and it's the key ingredient that turns Big Adventure into a well-regarded modern classic while Big Top is largely forgettable. It has pathos.
As joyful as Pee-Wee is in the first minutes of Big Adventure, it's not long before his bicycle is stolen by the rich brat Frances Buxton. The character's transition from gleeful man-child to despondent loner is meaningful, because as broad as Reubens goes when Pee-Wee is happy, he's just as broad when Pee-Wee is sad. Like a lost lover, everything Pee-Wee sees reminds him of his missing bike, and he doesn't unleash his trademark laugh again until after his first clue to the bike's location (not counting his bout of paranoid hysteria in his basement while going over meaningless clues to the crime).
Screenwriters Reubens and Phil Hartman, along with rookie director Tim Burton, find very real pathos in the story of Pee-Wee struggling against impossible odds, making us sympathize and go on that journey with him, no matter how weirdly ridiculous a character he is. Big Top Pee-Wee, with its modest story of a circus that gets stranded in a town that doesn't cotton kindly to circus-folk, doesn't connect in the same way, because the human struggle doesn't belong to Pee-Wee (it belongs to Kris Kristofferson, as the man in charge of the circus).
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure seems to be the sole film I'll never tire of, even after innumerable viewings. To me, it's always funny, it's always just the right amount of odd, and it's always completely entertaining. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is a perfect movie, exactly what it needs to be, and Pee-Wee is the perfect character for Paul Reubens.
Happy anniversary, Pee-Wee Herman.