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Tim Burton
Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger, Judd Omen, Irving Hellman, Monte Landis, Damon Martin
Writing Credits:
Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, Michael Varhol

You will believe a man can ride a bike.

Eccentric man-child Pee-Wee Herman embarks on the big adventure of his life across the US mainland, as he sets out to find his beloved bike, when it is stolen in broad daylight.

Box Office:
$6 million.
Opening Weekend
$99.184 thousand on 21 screens.
Domestic Gross
$40.940 million.

Rated PG-13

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1/16X9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 5/2/2000

• Audio Commentary with Director Tim Burton and Actor/Writer Paul Reubens
• Isolated Score/Audio Commentary with Composer Danny Elfman
• Deleted Scenes
• Production Sketches/Storyboards with Commentary
• Cast/Crew Bios
• Trailer


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 11, 2011)

Is 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure the funniest movie of all-time? Maybe not, but it's awfully close. It's one of those rare comedies that gets better on repeated viewings and always offers new information; I've watched it at least 15 or 20 times and I don't get sick of it in the least.

Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) lives an odd man-child existence and loves nothing more than his super-tricked-out bicycle. His spoiler, wealthy frenemy Francis (Mark Holton) covets the bike but Pee-wee won’t sell it at any price.

Imagine Pee-wee’s shock and dismay when someone steals the bike. He immediately suspects Francis – and correctly, too, as the brat paid a thug (Ralph Seymour) to lift the vehicle for him. With Pee-wee onto him, Francis crumbles under the pressure and demands that the thief unload the bike.

Of course, Pee-wee knows none of this, so he goes into overdrive to find his beloved two-wheeler. A psychic (Erica Yohn) tells him he can locate it in the basement of the Alamo. This sets Pee-wee on a cross-country journey to recover his most prized possession.

The appeal of Adventure is hard to define, but obviously comes from a combination of a well-written script and terrific performances. The movie almost completely lacks a plot; my synopsis makes it sound tighter than it is, as the film really just provides a bunch of episodes connected by the “on the road” theme.

In other reviews, I've slammed movies for failing to feature a coherent plot, so it may seem unfair or irrational that I will praise Adventure for the same issue. However, the difference is that the other plot-less films suffered from that problem; they didn't work due to their lack of narrative. Adventure, on the other hand, works darned well without a harshly-imposed story; in fact, attempts to more strictly structure the picture would have completely ruined the appeal of the project, which is based on the film's gleeful embrace of an incredibly broad variety of genres and settings.

Of course, Pee-wee and his associates clearly don't live in a world that even remotely resembles ours or any other that ever existed. Actually, that may be a little extreme, because it's not like the thing takes place on Mars; however, any locale in which an odd man-child like Pee-wee can be so fully accepted - and viewed as normal - doesn't appear anywhere in the US, and it never has.

But that's part of the fun: Pee-wee behaves how he wants and no one blinks an eye. A similar motif occurs in 1999’s Stuart Little, though the whole talking mouse thing's even more extreme.

The script itself is good, and provides a lot of opportunities for entertainment, but Adventure stands as a classic due to two main issues: the performers and director Tim Burton. Back at the time, few had heard of Burton - this was his first feature film - and I know I just assumed that Adventure worked so well due to the genius of Reubens. I discovered just how wrong that assumption was in 1988. That year we got the next part of the story, Big Top Pee-wee, directed - for reasons unknown, since he seemed unqualified for a wild comedy - by Grease and Blue Lagoon honcho Randal Kleiser. Around the same time, we also received Burton's next project, Beetlejuice. While it didn't compare with Adventure, the latter was quite good and remains a fine film. Big Top, on the other hand, was one of the most disappointing movies I've seen; it was completely joyless and unfunny.

As such, I learned that maybe Adventure was as great as it was not just because of Reubens' persona; obviously something else was needed, and Burton clearly provided the perverse style needed to make the project work. I really think it's Burton's influence that keeps Adventure from being a kids' film. Oh, it may be plenty entertaining for young 'uns, but without Burton, I think much of its appeal would have remained for that crowd. This DVD's audio commentary mentions that a "G"-rating had once seemed desirable. However, while there's frankly little about Adventure that dictates its "PG"-rating - if there's any profanity, I can't recall it, and sex and violence are also virtually absent - I simply cannot imagine it as a "G"-rated kids' movie.

In fact, I can't imagine Adventure as anything other than an adult-oriented film. Maybe I'm too close to the movie to judge - I love it too much - but it's always seemed like a very adult picture to me. In fact, for years I thought it was "R"-rated, even though there's nothing that would even remotely justify such a mark. The movie just appeared too daring and wicked to just be "PG".

Maybe it's because Burton does bring a wittily sinister sense to the project that it got the "PG" rating. Objectively, it doesn't make sense, but subjectively, the film appears too bizarrely adult to be "G". That was Burton's gift here; his presence inspired what could have been an insipid children's piece to be one of the most visually-clever and fascinating movies ever made.

Of course, the performers deserve a lot of the credit. Reubens is on-screen for the vast majority of the film, and he never fails to entertain. As Pee-wee, he can take the most innocuous lines and make them hilarious; tons of material in Adventure would have failed in the hands of other actors. (If we ever got a new Pee-wee, though, it would have to be Alan Cumming; I don't think he could do the persona justice - it's Reubens' baby and always will be - but Cumming seems like a good match for the role.)

Reubens is the focus of the movie and just as Burton's direction makes the film work, Reubens' performance completes the picture. It also benefits from a pretty-uniformly excellent supporting cast. Virtually without exception, every component of the other inhabitants of Pee-wee's world seem to fit. I tried to find a weak link and I couldn't; all the actors fill their roles wonderfully.

Mark Holton gives Pee-wee the perfect foil as spoiled rich kid Francis. He also seems equal parts man and boy, though I wish they'd gone more for the "boy" look in his swimming pool scene; something about the appearance of Holton's armpit hair distracts me.

Other favorites among the cast are Judd Omen's wickedly menacing escaped convict Mickey, and Carmen Filpi's Hobo Jack. Filpi especially makes the most of his limited screen time and offers some of the movie's best laughs with his renditions of old-time songs like "Skip To My Lou". I hope my mention of these two doesn't slight the others, because they're all terrific, all the way down to spunky little Speck the dog.

Is there anything about Adventure I don't like? Not much. I've never cared for the film's two dream sequences; the film itself is odd enough and something about these scenes always seemed pointless and unentertaining, especially since they don't do anything to reinforce or move along the story. Of course, a lot of the rest is mainly fun for fun's sake, but the difference is that all those scenes are entertaining, whereas the dream sequences are not.

But other than that, I can't think of much I'd change about Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The movie keeps up a relentless pace of hilarious material that rarely lags, and it's a consistent treasure from start to finish. I've loved this film for more than 25 years now, and it hasn't grown in the least bit tired during that time; put simply, it's one of the greatest movies ever made.

The Disc Grades: Picture C/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. This was an acceptable SD-DVD presentation but not a good one.

Sharpness seemed erratic. Some shots demonstrated pretty good definition, but plenty of others looked somewhat soft and fuzzy. Wide shots tended to suffer from blockiness. Digital artifacts and haloes created minor distractions, and I saw some instances of shimmering and jaggies. Source flaws weren’t heavy, but they showed up with moderate frequency, as I noticed a fair number of specks and marks.

Adventure featured a lot of bold primary colors, and the DVD did a decent but unspectacular job of rendering these. Hues seemed somewhat messy; they lack the immediacy I would expect and could appear a bit flat and runny. Black levels appeared acceptably dark and deep, though shadow detail looked inconsistent; at times, it seemed fine but on other occasions they appeared a bit too heavy. This remained a watchable presentation but not one that excelled.

I liked the film's remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The movie originally featured a Dolby Surround track, and while I can't say this one opened things up much, it still sounded nice for a 26-year-old low-budget film.

The forward soundstage tended to stick pretty close to the center, with only mild activity coming from the sides. Effects from the right and left seemed pretty localized, and they didn't pan terribly smoothly; the sounds go slightly abruptly from one channel to the next. The surrounds featured a few effects; I might have noticed one or two from back there, but that's about it. Danny Elfman's terrific score came nicely from the various channels, however; it's unquestionably the best part of the soundstage.

That also went for the quality of the audio. Elfman's score sounded bright and dynamic; it really came across with surprisingly clarity and boldness. Effects tend to be a little thin, though they were decently realistic, and dialogue sounded clear and intelligible. This was a solid “B” mix for an older movie.

We get a moderate array of extras here. The big attraction – in theory, at least – comes from an audio commentary with director Tim Burton and actor/co-writer Paul Reubens. Both sit together for a running, screen-specific look at the origins and development of Pee-wee and the movie, character/story topics, cast and performances, locations, set and visual design, music and effects, and a few other production topics.

Objectively, I can’t call this a great commentary. It sags a bit too much and lacks much energy. However, as a major fan of the film, I think it’s a treat. Reubens and Burton don’t exactly sizzle with chatty chemistry, but they give us plenty of good notes about the movie and do so with reasonable humor. I find a lot to enjoy in this informative piece.

More commentary can be found from composer Danny Elfman during a track that combines his remarks with the movie's score. The music is presented in full 5.1 glory, and Elfman's statements appear during the parts that offer no score.

Since Adventure is a very music-heavy movie, this means that we don't get to hear a whole lot from Elfman, but what he says is pretty interesting. He discusses Adventure itself to a degree but spends more time musing about his career and relating the various processes through which he goes to write his scores.

Actually, it's probably a good thing that Elfman's time is limited since even with that restriction he pretty much runs out of material before the end; the guy even admits he has nothing to say at one point! In any case, it's a nice little extra.

Four Deleted Scenes run a total of 11 minutes, seven seconds. These include “Amazing Larry” (1:50), “Boone the Bear” (1:48), “Hospital Visitors” (2:20) and “Extended Studio Chase” (5:09). Three of the scenes have no relation to anything in the movie, whereas the final one shows parts of the climactic studio chase that were excised.

Although I was insanely happy to see these, I have to agree that they deserved to get the boot. Of the four, the first - which introduces us to Amazing Larry, who we briefly see during Pee-wee's meeting in his basement – is probably the only one that really could have stayed in the film, but it lacks much purpose and takes the focus off Pee-wee for too long. It's a neat little gag but not strong enough on its own to warrant inclusion.

As I already mentioned, I found the movie's two dream sequences to be the worst parts of Adventure, so I'm awfully happy that a third didn't make the cut. “Boone” is no better or worse than the other two, but if I didn't like those, there's no reason for me to enjoy this one.

“Visitors” shows Pee-wee in the hospital after he crashes his borrowed motorcycle. There we briefly meet his doctor - who makes a mutated appearance in Pee-wee's second dream sequence - and he receives a visit from the biker gang. The scene isn't terrible but it seems pointless and not too funny; as with the Amazing Larry bit, it focuses too much on the gang and not enough on Pee-wee. Some scenes get away with this - such as the great Alamo tour piece - but at least those gave us some good Pee-wee as well; his exasperated reactions to Jan Hooks' inane tour guide comments make the scene hilarious. Nothing like that happens in the hospital scene, so it was a logical omission.

“Chase” borders on being too long in the film’s final cut, and while some of these parts are fun - we finally get to see the payoff for the "boomerang bowtie" gag set up early in the film - they add little and they really would have slowed down the pace. Granted, I'd guess that they could have been tightened up with some minor editing - what we see doesn't match the manic pace of the finished product - but it still would have been overkill to include all this stuff. Nonetheless, I'm overjoyed that we get to see it plus the other three scenes.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we find Production Sketches and Storyboards with commentary from production designer David Snyder. Mostly this section offers storyboards; we also see some production plans and drawings, but the majority of the material comes from the boards. The piece runs as a continuous video program that goes for 11 minutes, 26 seconds.

I'm not a huge fan of storyboards, but this segment works pretty well if just because it offers a look at some of the ways the finished product differed from the plans, something that's especially true during the opening scene's boards. Snyder's comments mainly offer a general look at his work without too much specific about Adventure itself, but they make for a nice addition to this program. Overall, it's a worthwhile segment for fans.

After all that, the DVD finishes with some of the old stand-bys. The film's theatrical trailer appears, and we also get a couple of text sections. The Writers provides brief but acceptable biographies of the three screenwriters: Reubens, Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol. Why in the world these didn't just appear in the Cast and Crew area I don't know, but in any case, we find entries for four of the actors, Elfman and Burton there. These are pretty standard and range from relatively informative (Burton) to almost nothing (Diane Salinger) with one terrific exception: we actually get a funny biography for Pee-wee Herman! I thought that was a nice touch to round out the package.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure is unquestionably one of my top ten films of all-time, and it's arguably the funniest movie ever made. The picture is just as entertaining now as it was 26 years ago, and I don't think that will ever change. The DVD provides mediocre visuals but includes good audio and supplements. The problems with picture quality make this a less than stellar release, but it’s still a decent representation of a delightful film.

To rate this film visit the Blu-Ray review of PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main