10 reasons Pee-Wee's Big Adventure has aged so well
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a great Tim Burton film, from back when Tim Burton still regularly made great films. It’s the first major movie Burton directed, and was the start of his highly successful collaboration with composer Danny Elfman. It also launched the mainstream success of Paul Reubens’ character Pee-Wee Herman. It’s a sign of its continual appeal that Netflix recently released Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, thirty-one years after the original movie. Big Holiday recaptured much of the charm and humor of the first film, and helped to wash away the bad taste from Big Top Pee-Wee.
So why was this fairly modest mid-’80s comedy enough of a hit to be the auspicious start of so many creative careers? And how has it enjoyed such a lasting impact?
1. The bicycle.
This is a story about a bicycle first and foremost, and bike culture is very in right now, so Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure feels like it fits right in with that. The bicycle itself has a great look and is an important part of the movie. It even has superspy-like features to it, like a control for spraying smoke, trick handlebars, and an ejector seat. It’s like a Batmobile with less wheels and more exercising. The viewer can see why Pee-Wee would be so attached to it.
2. The town.
Pee-Wee’s town seems like a fun place to live. Sure, you may have to deal with a bully and small-time thief like Francis, but most of the other townspeople we see are positive and really supportive of Pee-Wee. It’s also got a fun magic shop, and is very friendly toward bicyclists. The town on the whole seems safe, bright, welcoming, and relaxed about unconventional lifestyle, aesthetic, and fashion choices.
3. It has a timeless quality.
The humor is largely apolitical, which prevents it from feeling too stuck in any particular time period. There are two Cold War-era references to the Soviet Union, one when Pee-Wee thinks they may be involved in taking his bike, and another at the end at the drive-in movie, but they’re so brief as to be barely noticeable.
4. Pee-Wee is relatable.
The fantasy at the heart of the movie is easy to relate to. Pee-Wee Herman is an overgrown kid without adult responsibilities or commitments. He gets to spend his time playing with toys, and eats breakfast cereal for kids. How he achieved this lifestyle is never really explained, but what does it matter? Maybe he inherited a fortune from wealthy parents, or got rich off of a wacky invention. The point is that the audience watching it really gets the childlike innocence and enthusiasm that Pee-Wee brings to all of his many encounters.
5. The humor is good-natured.
The humor is always clean and rarely mean-spirited. This was a movie that appealed to kids, but didn’t stoop to lowbrow or crude humor to win that appeal. It seems like at some point the “laughs” of a fair chunk of kid-friendly movies in the ’80s or ’90s consisted of references to bodily functions. The humor in this movie is often more of the absurd type, or of various fish out of water scenarios. The tone throughout is mostly innocent, neither campy nor cynical.
6. The score.
Danny Elfman’s film score is terrific and utterly captures the whimsy and unique nature of the film. This was Elfman’s first feature-length movie soundtrack, and as I wrote earlier, it led to him working with Burton on almost all of the latter’s films. It’s hard to imagine the Rube Goldberg-esque breakfast-making machine scene without the accompanying music, and it wouldn’t have had the same impact.
The movie is filled with little touches and throwaway lines that make it worth rewatching. Mickey talks about what prison is like and says that he gets to “lift weights, exercise, and write up appeals,” and the psychic Madame Ruby’s sign indicates that she also does income taxes. There are so many of these gags that one might miss on a first viewing, but come back and pick up on subsequent viewings.
8. It’s a kid-friendly movie that’s allowed to be scary.
The scarier parts to the movie remain scary all these years later. Burton has a thing for evil clown imagery, which we get a few times along with the ghost of Large Marge. If Pee-Wee is a grown-up child, then these parts can be seen as the way an unfamiliar world can often be filled with the fears of one’s imagination when a child has trouble separating rational fears from irrational ones.
9. It skillfully combines genres.
There are so many different genres and styles here that there’s something in it for every viewer to enjoy. In the most straightforward view of course, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a road trip adventure movie and comedy. On closer inspection, though, its got elements of so many more genres. With the previously mentioned ghosts, dark dreams, and evil clown imagery throughout the movie, it’s got elements of horror, too. And of course there are a lot of fantasy elements in it as well, although the fuzzy lines between what are dream events, things that are occurring in Pee-Wee’s imagination, and what’s supposed to be actually occurring during his adventure can make it unclear just how much of the film has fantasy aspects, but they’re clearly there.
10. Pee-Wee is a friend to all.
Pee-Wee is a character that gets along with folks of all backgrounds and social classes. He befriends criminals, members of the homeless community, working class waitresses, and members of a biker gang. Pee-Wee’s open and welcoming attitude once his road trip begins is a timeless reminder of the importance of inclusion and tolerance.