Viking Night: Pee-wee's Big Adventure

By Bruce Hall

September 28, 2016

Ah, the man boy and his bike.

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It’s not often that a film makes you feel like a kid again - without a shred of guilt.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of those films, and if you haven’t seen it before, you should. If you haven’t seen it in years, you definitely should. If you’ve seen it and didn’t like it, or were not affected by it in any way, then I’m sorry Mr. Putin. There’s nothing I can do for you.

Pee-wee Herman is based on the character created by comedian Paul Reubens back when we were sending C-list actors to the white house instead of megalomaniacal reality show hosts. Although you may or may not have heard of Reubens himself, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Pee-wee. I mentioned Reubens just last week at my day job and was met by blank stares until I uttered the words:

Pee-wee Herman?


Oh, that guy! Pee-wee is an amiable man-child, something like a cross between a ventriloquist’s dummy and your bratty nephew who’s lucky he’s only ten, otherwise someone might punch him in the face. Reubens hosted a popular stage act as the character, paving the way for an HBO special and eventually, a feature film. The idea was popular enough that several screen and television stars of the time agreed to appear in the film. The project would also mark the first collaboration of director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman.

Talk about everything falling into place. That’s better luck than being one of the guys who lent Bill Gates a couple thousand dollars to start that stupid computer company he was always babbling about. If that wasn’t enough, a direct result of this film’s success was Burton being allowed to make Beetlejuice, the success of which led to Batman, and an early legitimization of the superhero genre as a studio tentpole. That’s right. I’m saying that Pee-wee Herman invented the super-hero movie.

Or perhaps not, but I’m happy to toss that into the Internet rumor mill and watch it become someone’s reality.

Speaking of reality, you will find none of that in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The character himself was always a delicate mix of childlike wonder, to the extreme of a weird fetish. Pee-wee lives alone in a modest suburban home, lavishly appointed with all the trappings of pre-adolescence. He jumps on the bed when he wakes up, has Bambi carpet on the floor, and he talks to his adorable little dog in the way only a child can talk to an adorable little dog. He uses a Rube Goldberg machine to make his breakfast, which is both the first of many Burtonesque flourishes and something I’ve always wanted to do.

And yet, he takes almost Machiavellian glee in the high-tech security system he has installed to safeguard it all. There’s a duality to Pee-Wee; he’s filled with childlike wonder, but he has a fully developed sinister streak. Sure, he’s far too intellectually innocent to do anything truly mean with it; but it’s there, and it’s what makes the character as entertaining for adults as he is for children.

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