What is it about a rebel (or two) that makes a movie more compelling than it should be? In “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” two Tinsel Town rebels, Paul Reubens and Tim Burton, meet up to update the neo-realist Italian classic “The Bicycle Thief.” I saw this once when I was kid, but after a recommendation from a co-worker (thanks Curt!), I decided to give it another chance.
So we begin; Enter Pee Wee (Reubens), a gleeful man-child perfectly content with his life and his greatest joy, his shiny red bike.
Of course, life isn’t perfect; a rich meanie of a man-child, Francis (Mark Holton), has long coveted Pee Wee’s bike, and Francis makes it clear that he will do whatever it takes to get it. Pee Wee also has girl problems, mainly that while he’s not interested, Dottie (Elizabeth Daily), the bike-shop cutie, keeps pestering him for a date. Oh, Dottie, you can’t tame a rebel, even cinema’s most congenial rebel.
And of course, his beloved bike is stolen, and with no way to get it back, Pee Wee’s dark side surfaces; after alienating all the people who would help him, he visits a crackpot psychic who sends him on a cross-country journey to recover his lost joy.
On his adventure, Pee Wee meets and charms every road movie clich in the books; bikers, hobos, a small-town waitress with dreams of the big city, and a criminal on the run (not to mention an in-the-flesh urban legend) all take Pee Wee into their hearts, recognizing the common spirit they all share.
As improbable as it sounds, Pee Wee fits right in the Burton oeuvre: Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Jack the Pumpkin King, all wanted to be different in a world of sameness, and in one way or another, they all got what they longed for. “Pee Wee” manages to keep Pee Wee’s sweetness and charm in the foreground and keeping his downright creepiness at bay, a Burton trademark.
But don’t forget, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” is a comedy; the extended opening sequence as Pee Wee starts his day grates a little, but soon enough, the surreal nature of the journey (and road flicks in general) kicks in and the improbable laughs creep up. When I was kid, I never got into “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” but if it had been more “Big Adventure” than “Mr. Rodgers,” I probably would have liked it more.
But the biggest laughs come at the end, as Pee Wee attends the world premiere (at the Drive-In) of his movie, a soulless action-packed blockbuster staring James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild as Pee Wee and Dottie. Burton, along with screenwriters Reubens, Martin Varhol and the great Phil Hartman (R.I.P.), shamelessly bite the hands the finance them, showing that even in Land of Bland known as Hollywood (only slightly kidding), rebels still have an occasional chance to shine. Sure, that spirit gives “Pee Wee” more credit than it deserves, but it’s a fun ride anyway.