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Pee-wee's Big Adventure(1985)
Pee-wee's bicycle, the keenest bike in the world, is missing. His most prized possession... he's just got to get it back! Searching high, low and in between, Pee-wee hits the open road and encounters riotous adventures with bikers, bums, cowboys, cons, a phantom trucker and a waitress with wanderlust and even Warner Bros. Studios.
For more about Pee-wee's Big Adventure and the Pee-wee's Big Adventure Blu-ray release, see Pee-wee's Big Adventure Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on October 3, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger, Judd Omen, Monte Landis
Director: Tim Burton
» See full cast & crew
Pee-wee's Big Adventure Blu-ray Review
Tim Burton's Grand Entrance
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, October 3, 2011
Tim Burton is famous for his long partnership with leading man Johnny Depp, and occasionally someone remembers that Burton's career got a considerable boost from the three early films in which he cast Michael Keeton as an unlikely star (Beetlejuice, Batman and Batman Returns). But I think people often overlook the centrality of Burton's collaboration with Paul Reubens, a/k/a Pee-wee Herman, to the director's unique style and vision. The collaboration was certainly good for Reubens. Starting with the Groundlings, he had enjoyed success as an actor and standup in the Seventies and early Eighties, and his Pee-wee character had become familiar from guest appearances and an adult-themed 1981 special on HBO. But it was 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure that brought him a mass audience, redefining the character in the process and paving the way for the beloved Pee-Wee's Playhouse TV show that ran on CBS for five seasons from 1986 through 1990. Reubens couldn't have done it without Burton, and Burton, who was making his feature film debut, couldn't have found a better star through which to express his eccentrically skewed vision of the world, which, in film after film, has firmly established a style that any regular moviegoer will quickly recognize as, simply, "Burtonesque". Who knows what other work Reubens and Burton might have done if Reubens hadn't badly damaged his career with the infamous 1991 arrest in a Florida adult theater? He took a small roll in Batman Returns and did voice work in The Nightmare Before Christmas, but the Burton/Reubens collaboration essentially ended after one film. But what a film! You can't watch it without noticing the seeds of everything Burton would do in the next ten years. Beetlejuice, the two Batmans, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood -- it's all there. And so are elements of Mars Attacks!, Big Fish and even, at moments, that ultimate seeker of revenge, Sweeney Todd (even if Pee-wee ultimately settles for an ejector seat instead of a razor).
The script for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was co-written by Reubens, the late Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol (who would go on to co-write and produce Christopher Guest's hilarious The Big Picture). It's an admirable example of comic writing, because it lays out a simple plot in the most efficient possible manner, then proceeds to work variation after variation on the basic elements, with no apparent effort or sense of exhaustion. You always know where you are, but you're constantly being surprised. It looks effortless, but it's murder to pull off successfully. The title says it all: Pee-wee, our hero, has an adventure. First, though, we have to meet him. An asexual man-child in a red bow-tie and a gray glen-plaid suit that's two sizes too small, Pee-wee lives to play. His house resembles FAO Schwarz as reconceived by Rube Goldberg. Pee-wee takes the long way around to do ordinary things for the sheer fun of it, as demonstrated when his kitchen mechanically prepares an elaborate breakfast, not so that he can eat it, but so that he can arrange the pancakes in the shape of a face and make them "talk" to him. (Then he eats cereal.) Pee-wee has two loves in life: his dog, Speck, and his customized red bicycle, which, in his dreams, he pedals to victory in the Tour de France. This only makes it more irksome that a rich acquaintance, Francis Buxton (Mark Holton), covets the bike and offers to pay any price for it. Pee-wee declines, provoking a confrontation that is a festival of Pee-wee-isms (above all, "I know you are, but what am I?"). So intensely is Pee-wee attached to his bike that he's immune to the charms of Dottie (Elizabeth Daily), who works for Chuck (Daryl Lee Roach) at Chuck's Bike-O-Rama. Dottie asks him to take her to the drive-in, but Pee-wee just wants the incredibly loud horn she's been adjusting for him. (Heaven knows why she stays interested.) "I'm a loner, Dottie, a rebel", he tells her. Well, not entirely. When Pee-wee exits the store to discover his bike has been stolen, he staggers back to Dottie and collapses in a heap. Pee-wee knows Francis is behind the theft, but without proof he can do nothing other than invade the Buxton mansion and terrorize him -- in a great sequence featuring cameos by Ed Herlihy (Ed McMahon's predecessor on The Tonight Show) as Mr. Buxton and Professor Toru Tanaka (from The Running Man and Dead Heat) as the family butler. No, Pee-wee will have to find his missing two-wheeled friend on his own -- and there's no length to which he won't go and no predicament into which he can't get himself. For starters, Pee-wee alienates all his human friends, including Dottie and Chuck, by summoning them to a three-hour meeting where he proceeds to recount every irrelevant factoid about the bike's disappearance. Then he wanders alone, snarling and sighing, down a dark alley where you half expect to see Batman jump out, eventually winding up in the parlor of Madam Ruby (Erica Yohn), a charlatan fortune teller, who says the bike is in the basement of The Alamo. Road trip! He meets an escaped convict named Mickey (Judd Omen); a ghost trucker; a waitress who dreams of Paris (Diane Salinger) and her violently jealous boyfriend, Andy (Jon Harris), at a roadside dinosaur museum; and a cheerily snippy Alamo tour guide played by co-writer Hartman's old SNL co-star Jan Hooks (she improvised all her tour guide patter). Finally, he learns, in a development worthy of Samuel Beckett, that the Alamo has no basement. A chance discovery reveals to Pee-wee that his bike is in Hollywood -- on the Warner Brothers lot, no less. This gives Burton the chance to perfect what Mel Brooks did at the end of Blazing Saddles by staging a classic movie chase scene mash-up, as Pee-wee races his now-recovered red two-wheeler across several movie sets and a Twisted Sister video, all while film is presumably rolling. The Japanese monster movie probably doesn't resemble anything ever shot at Warner, but who cares? Ed Wood might have made it, if he'd been given the chance. Everything resolves itself in a perfect Hollywood ending that I'm not going to give away for those who don't already know (and I didn't include it in the screenshots either). Burton keeps finding odd angles and bizarre perspectives from which to shoot his hero, and he doesn't hesitate to throw him into the most outlandish and cartoonish situations (including actual cartoons), because he knows he can trust his star to be the rock-solid foundation on which the film rests its M.C. Escher architecture. Having both created the character and co-written the script, Reubens knows how to maintain Pee-wee as the one constant in a stormy sea of change. That's why, at the end, we watch Pee-wee weave through an assembly of the motley crew he's encountered on his adventure (did I mention the biker gang?), all of them now firmly plugged in to the ways of Pee-wee Herman, and all responding with warmth and affection (much like the audience) to that familiar nasal laugh and childish voice. As for Pee-wee, he's the same, except that he's acquired a greater appreciation for the value of having friends other than Speck and his bike. You feel happy for them all, and you want to race over to join them at the drive-in. Just remember to tell 'em Large Marge sent you.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure Blu-ray, Video Quality
The video on Warner's 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray is a mixed bag, and while it's impossible to be sure without access to the source material, I suspect that at least part of the problem lies with the source. Much of what Burton was trying to achieve visually was not possible at high quality in a pre-CG world on the kind of budget (about $6 million) that Warner was willing to give a first-time director and an unproven star. (An obvious example occurs in the E.T. parody shot during the big chase scene on the Warner lot; as Pee-wee and his bike go flying across the sky, the matte lines around them are readily visible, even more so in high definition.) Black levels, contrast, color intensity and details are generally good and consistent from scene to scene. What varies is the amount of video noise. Generally, but not always, scenes in bright light, whether indoors or outdoor, have little or no noise. Noise is more likely to intrude as light levels dim. Then again, there can be an occasional scene that's noisy while brightly lit; so there are certainly other factors at issue (in some cases, undoubtedly optical effects). I always consider such situations a bad news/good news scenario. The bad news is that there's noise. The good news is that it hasn't been stripped off by DNR, along with essential detail. As long as the noise isn't intrusive or distracting (and I never found it to be so), the good news outweighs the bad. The bulk of the film is clear and detailed, and numerous scenes reveal layers of imagery that I don't recall seeing before: the faces of the garden gnomes on Pee-wee's front lawn, the cheesy textures of the monster models on the Godzilla-like film being shot at Warner Brothers, the scruffy decor at the truck stop and biker bar -- these are just a few of the things that caught my eye on this viewing. There's plenty more.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The film's soundtrack was remixed for 5.1 for the 2000 DVD, and that mix is presented here in DTS lossless. Like most such remixes, it's front-oriented and provides little in the way of surround activity. The chief beneficiary is Danny Elfman's animated score, which is the perfect complement to both Pee-wee's personality and Burton's temperament (it's no accident that Elfman has remained his composer of choice). The Blu-ray's track gives the score presence and breathing room, and also does well by The Champs' rendition of "Tequila", which blasts through at a critical moment in the story. I can't really say that Twisted Sister's "Burn in Hell" is equally well represented, because there's so much else happening at the time. The dialogue is, of course, perfectly clear, but that isn't saying much. Pee-wee Herman could make himself heard over a foghorn.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The extras have been ported over from the 2000 DVD. The only omission is a short text presentation providing background on the screenwriters.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Confession time: I could never sit through Pee-Wee's Playhouse and the Randall Kleiser-directed sequel, Bigtop Pee-Wee, left me cold. But there was something magical in the chemistry between Reubens and Burton that pulls me into Pee-Wee's Big Adventure every time. The Blu-ray of the film may not become your latest demo disc, but it's the best presentation I've ever seen outside of a theater (and most theaters in 1985 weren't all that great anyway). Both the film and, with appropriate caveats, the Blu-ray are highly recommended.
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