Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Paul Reubens, Mark Holton
Extras: Audio Commentary, Theatrical Trailer, Deleted Scenes, Talent Files, Music-only track with Commentary, Production Notes

One of the most impressive things about DVDs thus far (besides the picture and sound quality) is the number of catalog titles that have been released. Most of the studios have been doing an admirable job of mixing new releases with older films. The only problem here is when a film doesn’t live up to the memory that the viewer had of it. (It seems that many of the films that I’ve bought have much more talking and less action than I remember from seeing them as a child.) Well, I’m happy to report that "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" doesn’t fall into the disappointing category. This wonderful film is just as fresh and exciting today as it was when it premiered in 1985. Warner Home Video has just released "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" on DVD so that we may all enjoy this hilarious film again, and so that a new audience can discover that there’s more to Pee-Wee Herman than just controversy.

Describing the story of "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" doesn’t begin to do the film justice, but I’ll give it a shot. "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" focuses on the antics of Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), a strange little man who lives in a colorful house full of odd gadgets and oversize cutlery. Pee-Wee lives with his tiny dog named Speck, and seems to enjoy a simple life among his odd treasures. Pee-Wee’s most treasured possession is his bike, which is a streamlined roadster, covered with many accessories. As the film opens, we see how Pee-Wee cares for the bike. We are then introduced to Francis (Mark Holton, probably best known for yelling "It’s Enrico Palazzo!" in "The Naked Gun"), Pee-Wee’s arch-nemesis. Francis is a spoiled rich kid and he offers to buy Pee-Wee’s bike. Pee-Wee refuses and thus the famous "I know you are but what am I?" argument is spawned.

Pee-Wee then goes downtown to do some shopping at the magic shop (there are some classic sight gags in that scene) and then on to Chuck’s Bike-O-Rama to pick up a horn for his bike. At the bike shop, we are introduced to Dottie (Elizabeth Daily, Chuckie from "Rugrats"), who is clearly infatuated with Pee-Wee. But, Pee-Wee spearns her advances, informing Dottie that he is "a loner, a rebel." Pee-Wee exits the bike shop to find his worst nightmare come to life. His bike has been stolen!

From here on out, "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" becomes a road-movie, as Pee-Wee travels cross-country to look for his missing bike. Along the way, he meets hobos, dinosaurs, Twisted Sister (!), escaped convicts, bulls, and the head of Warner Bros. The film constantly introduces new situations for Pee-Wee to deal with as he searches for his most prized possession.

As mentioned above, "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" has lost none of its originality or charm. Even the oft-imitated "I know you are but what am I?" scene still comes off as fresh and funny. This must be credited to the character of Pee-Wee and director Tim Burton, here making his feature debut. Burton obviously "gets" Pee-Wee’s strange world and injects it with bright colors and creative shots. The film is very well-paced and never gets dull. Through the use of colorful lighting and animation, we are offered a glimpse of the magic that Burton would bring to the screen in his later films.

Burton and Reubens also do a great job of making the very odd Pee-Wee very endearing. Most people weren’t familiar with the Pee-Wee character when the film debuted, but the film is successful in immediately introducing who Pee-Wee is and what he lives for. The world that Pee-Wee inhabits is full of interesting people who treat Pee-Wee as an equal. Though we, the audience, see Pee-Wee as being odd and funny, the way that he interacts with others helps to set the tone for the film. We grasp immediately that "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" isn’t meant to be a reflection of real-life and thus the film is allowed to tell its strange little story. Also, I love the way that the clearly adult Pee-Wee, Dottie, and Francis, all communicate as if they were 12-years old. Every other "adult" in the film acts their age, but these three characters carry on as if they haven’t hit puberty yet.

Reubens’ performance as Pee-Wee can’t really be critiqued, as he is basically Pee-Wee. We’ve come to associate Reubens with the role and it’s hard to remember that Pee-Wee is actually just a character portrayed by an actor. The only negative point in the film is Elizabeth Daily’s performance as Dottie. Delivering her lines appears to be torturous to her and there’s never a shred of believability to her role. Look for cameos by the late Phil Hartman (also a co-writer of the film) and Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson as a biker babe. (Also note the Elvira poster in the magic shop window.)

Pee-Wee Herman would be proud of the Warner Home Video DVD of "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure", as it is full of surprises. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. Judging from the comments made by Tim Burton during the <$commentary,audio commentary> (more on that in a moment), the film was originally shot in an <$OpenMatte,open matte> format. Burton comments that in the old full-frame home video version, things that should have been beneath the frame (such as the hole in the bottom of Pee-Wee’s bike box from where he pulls a seemingly never-ending supply of chain) were clearly visible. But in this new <$PS,letterboxed> version, these items cannot be seen. The picture itself is clear, though there is some subtle grain at times, especially during the day-time shots. However, the color balancing has been handled with care and Burton’s presentation of Pee-Wee’s colorful world has remained intact. The blacks are a very deep, natural black, making the other colors, especially the dominant red, stand out very nicely. The <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc shows little signs of artifacting.

The audio on "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" is a newly remastered <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>. The sound is very good, as it highlights Danny Elfman’s amazing score for the film. The sound is well-balanced with the sound effects and Pee-Wee’s great dialogue never trying to outdo one another.

The DVD features an <$commentary,audio commentary> with director Tim Burton and Pee-Wee himself, Paul Reubens. The duo are obviously very laid-back and it takes them a while to get going, but after the first few minutes, they talk quite a great deal about the making of the film and the challenges of having a low budget. While many of their anecdotes are interesting and enlightening, some of them are too vague. They will begin to talk about something and then drop it. For example, Tim Burton comments that the studio was upset with the film’s PG rating, but doesn’t espouse on that. Did they want a G? Did they want an NC-17? But, I did like it when Burton referred to himself as a frustrated interior decorator.

There is also a music-only track, which has commentary by composer Danny Elfman. Be patient with this feature, as Elfman’s comments don’t begin until the 3:00 minute mark, and are then scattered throughout the film, thus giving the viewer (listener) an opportunity to enjoy the score. Elfman shares some good stories about how he came to be involved with the project and what lead him to compose the circus-like score.

There are four deleted scenes, including an extended version of the chase through the Warner Bros. lot. All four scenes have some nice moments, but it’s obvious that each one was removed for slowing down the film. There is a theatrical trailer, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. There are storyboards, which feature a commentary by production designer David L. Snyder. And while Snyder’s comments aren’t very specific to the storyboards, he does offer some insight into the process of making "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure." There is a special section that highlights the writers of the film, Paul Reubens, Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol. Talent files, featuring the cast and crew round off this release, although it should be noted that there is no talent file for Paul Reubens, just for Pee-Wee. I supposed that they didn’t want to discuss some of the more lurid details of Ruebens’ life.

"Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure" is one of the most satisfying DVDs that I’ve seen thus far. The movie is just as good as I remembered it being and the quality of the DVD does justice to this hilarious film. The movie still holds up well today and is perfect for family programming, as it has no profanity and teaches some good moral lessons. Also, the film gives us a chance to see two genuises at work. We see Reubens’ at the height of his craft and Burton as he was just learning the ropes. There’s no need to search the Alamo for a great comedy, you’ll find it in "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure."