Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

“There’s a lotta things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie — things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.”

An eccentric man-child named Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) sets off on a cross-country search when his beloved bicycle is stolen.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • Road Trip
  • Search

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary admits that he was wary of Pee-wee Herman’s debut film after catching a “fleeting glimpse” of him on television, but duly notes that “there is good reason… it has earned a reputation as a genuine sleeper which adults may like as much as the kids who were its original audience.” Indeed, it’s a film full of “unexpected delights”, beginning with Reubens’ “smartly conceived performance”. Pee-wee is someone you either love or hate — he “isn’t particularly sympathetic” — but you’ve certainly never experienced anyone like him before; as Peary puts it, “you’ll be baffled, not awed, that such a character exists (other than in the seat behind you on the bus).”

And the film’s “manic, rhythmic” narrative is sprinkled with “a lot of characters who are almost as weird as he is” — it’s impossible to predict who (or what) Pee-wee will encounter next.

Like Peary, I believe the “funniest scene” in the movie is Pee-wee’s “interminable tour of the Alamo” (wonderfully improvised by Jan Hooks as the Texan tour guide):

but there are many other enjoyably wacky moments as well, including the opening Rube Goldberg sequence in Pee-wee’s brightly colored playhouse:

… Pee-wee’s heart-to-heart talk with a francophone waitress (Diane Salinger) (quoted below):

and Pee-wee’s table-top dance in a biker bar.

While it’s certainly not for all tastes — Vincent Canby of the New York Times panned it upon its release, referring to it as “the most barren comedy” he’d seen in years — all film fanatics should watch this cult favorite (directed by Tim Burton) at least once — and most will find it tremendous fun.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Reubens’ inimitable performance as Pee-wee Herman
  • Pee-wee’s visit to the Alamo
  • Surreally vibrant sets
  • A truly clever and unique script: “Everyone I know has a big but. C’mon, Simone: let’s talk about your big but.”
  • Danny Elfman’s memorable score

Must See?
Yes, as a certifiable cult favorite.


  • Cult Movie
  • Important Director


One thought on “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

  1. A must, a must, a must, a must, a must – “Infinity!”

    A film that could easily serve as a thesis basis, ‘PWBA’ also serves nicely as a barometer for who you might – and who you probably wouldn’t – want to get too chummy with. Say you meet someone intriguing at a social gathering. The conversation may be going along nicely – in a platonic or even amorous manner. At some point, though, try making your ‘move’: quote something (which could prove a challenge, though there’s always the surefire “I know you are – but what am I?”). Even if the listener hasn’t seen the movie, the water’s still fine if, when the film’s title is mentioned, you get a response like, “I’ve always wanted to see that.” (A chance to watch together!) If, however, full disclosure ends with the other person arching brows or some such (like a sneer!), the wise move would be to flow further along into the party. Things won’t get better. (Trust me; I only want what’s best for you.)

    Don’t get me started on what passes for comedy for the most part these days – or even what did 20+ years ago, when this instant classic (who gives a fig about Vincent Canby anyway?!) was thrust upon us. It’s the rare modern comedy – like this one – that sets out to do one thing: tickle your funny bone non-stop, almost mercilessly. ‘PWBA’ has this strength. There are no lulls here. None. And the laughs are pretty fast and furious. Though it’s impossible to compare the film to any other, what comes to mind first is ‘Bringing Up Baby’, with its similar, escalating feel. It’s also rather like a 90-minute, vintage Warner Brothers cartoon.

    I can’t claim anything’s a fave here cause it’s ALL a fave. To point out a particular line, for example, I’d have to recite the whole script. (Oddly, in the DVD commentary with Reubens and Burton, co-writer Phil Hartman is mentioned merely in oblique passing. What can it mean?!)

    It is true, of course, that the half-whimsical, half-‘terrible two’ Pee-wee character, on some – what? deeper? – level is disturbing. That is, if you want to go that far. (I remember one of Reubens’ solo shows, in which he ecstatically held the figurine out, screaming, “Naked Gumby! Naked Gumby! Naked Gumby!” …Like I said, someone really should start on that thesis.) No other character here really has the same qualities of arrested development.

    But since one intent was to play to a wider audience, the more subversive Pee-wee humor is toned down in ‘PWBA’. Oh, sure, there’s the odd double entendre (“Oh, Pee-wee…I’ve been waiting for somebody to put it to me like that for so long.”) but Reubens was oddly able to get away with a lot more in his Playhouse show (oh, with things like…homo-eroticism).

    Come to think of it, on some level, did Reubens’ unfortunate public scandal really surprise anyone?*

    At any rate, ‘PWBA’ stands alone (certainly not next to its very inferior sequel) as certain, once-in-a-lifetime magic.

    Whatever you do, do not watch this one on tv, with invasive commercials. I did that once – spontaneity and rhythm were thrown to the wind.

    *Reubens’ lengthy, peripheral climb back into the very public eye may finally be over. He’s now filming the new Todd Solondz pic (which could literally mean anything!) and his long-talked-about ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Movie’ is in production. Here’s hoping!

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