Suburbia Can be Surreal: Looking Back on 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Spoilers Ahead)

There are days, not uncommonly distributed, that defy good or bad. They aren’t either; they’re surreal. Running on the flip-a-coin-and-see-how-the-day-unfolds sentiment.

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(from left to right) Director Tim Burton and star Paul Reubens on the set of their 1985 feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (History in Flix on Twitter Photo and Caption)

Director Tim Burton’s 1985 feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, is something like that: it just feels surreal on every level.

Imagine the darkest and brightest places known to man, add a man whose behaviour ranges from the childish to the downright dangerous in a world that doesn’t really know how to treat him but does as a child anyways.

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(clockwise from left to right) Musician Marilyn Manson, composer Danny Elfman, actor Paul Reubens and producer Tim Burton attend a 3D screening of A Nightmare Before Christmas in Los Angeles (Vince Bucci/GettyImages.com Photo and Caption)

That being said, 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure does feel like a number of the director’s later films, with special relevance in the following areas:

  1. Eccentric or misunderstood protagonists living apart from society: Whilst Pee-wee isn’t completely cut off from the world, he does behave very idiosyncratically and stays that way, much like Bruce Wayne/Batman in 1989’s Batman and Jake in 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. 
  2. Disproportionately-sized features or art design: The gadgets in Pee-wee’s house or the features of Large Marge, among others, in 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, carried-over into director Tim Burton’s animated feature films such as 2005’s Corpse Bride and 2012’s Frankenweenie.
  3. The juxtaposition of bright and dark environments: Much like how 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children co-housed Jake’s polished and pruned suburban home and Miss Peregrine’s child-home, 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has bright suburban environments with the surreal, often terrifying, highway regions.

As always, please let us know in the comments if you spot any other Burton-isms in 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Thank you.

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(from left to right) Co-screenwriters Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens and Michael Varhol on the set of their 1985 feature film, Pee-wee’s big Adventure (Peewee.com Photo and Caption)

The film’s plot, as interpreted at the review’s bottom, is easy to follow though Pee-wee’s quest to retrieve his bicycle does take some time to kick in. The film’s script, given what’s in the film, deliberately attempts, only attempts, to include different and often dangerous elements (Pee-wee’s highway-side lion experience and the Large Marge trip figure highly).

The film then backs off from these elements, much like the quasi-child that Pee-wee is, would.

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(from left to right) Stars Elizabeth Daily and Paul Reubens pictured in a scene from 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (JeanRegardeDesFilms.blogspot.com Photo)

The closest thing – given the friends Pee-wee makes over the film’s runtime – to a core acting pair is Paul Reuben’s Pee-wee Herman and Elizabeth Daily’s Dottie. Despite the former being an eccentric quasi-child, he, eventually, matures into accepting responsibility for his disregard for Dottie.

The closest thing to Pee-wee’s, admittedly partial change, is Diane Salinger’s Simone whom Pee-wee convinces to go to France and fulfil her dreams as opposed to waiting tables at the diner indefinitely.

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(from left to right) Director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman at a concert event for Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton in Los Angeles in 2013 (Slate.com Photo and Caption)

The score, by composer Danny Elfman, sounds equal parts happy and happily surreal as heard during scenes when Pee-wee is cycling through his neighbourhood compared to when he’s in a nightmare sequence (of which there are a few in this film).

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Director of Photography, Victor J. Kemper at the opening reception for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences winter reception (Zimbio.com Photo and Caption)

The cinematography in 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, courtesy of Director of Photography, Victor J. Kemper, makes the film feel like a road-trip movie. There are many still shots which have vehicles moving horizontally through the frame; some foreground-background shots suggesting where Pee-wee is headed; and some symmetrical vehicle-approaching-camera photography.

Given the mix of things that this film uses, there is also some very surreal photography through dinosaur teeth and shades of red that cast over Pee-wee’s nightmares suggesting a supernatural element at work.

Very simplistically, director Tim Burton’s 1985 feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, is a welcome, if comically disconcerting and surreal, introduction to his filmography and trademarks. Quite definitely the place to start for newcomers to his filmography.

(Whilst the opinions and observations cited above are, unless stated otherwise, the author’s own, the following sources were used to source information from: Cinelinx.com, IMDb.com, SensesOfCinema.com)

Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:

Plot: an idiosyncratic man sets off to find his bicycle after it is stolen.

Prologue: Pee-wee is seen competing in the Tour de France; Pee-wee wins the race and is nearly awarded.

Act 1: Pee-wee decides to get out of bed and get ready; Pee-wee decides to have breakfast with his pet dog, Speck.

Act 2: Pee-wee decides to head off into town; Pee-wee chooses not to sell his bicycle to Francis.

Act 3: Pee-wee decides to visit Mario’s Magic Shop in town; Pee-wee decides to visit Chuck’s Bike-o-Rama for the bicycle horn.

Act 4: Pee-wee decides to go looking for his stolen bicycle; Pee-wee decides to file a report with the police.

Act 5: Pee-wee decides to confront Francis at his home over his suspicions; Pee-wee chooses to apologise to Francis after being found by his father.

Act 6: Pee-wee decides to issue a reward call for his stolen bicycle; Pee-wee briefs his friends on the stolen bicycle case.

Act 7: Pee-wee decides to visit the seer, Madame Ruby; Pee-wee decides to head down to the Alamo afterwards.

Act 8: Pee-wee opts to accept a ride to the Alamo; Pee-wee decides to help the driver evade the police cordon.

Act 9: Pee-wee decides to drive the car; Pee-wee decides to get off after driving the car over a cliff.

Act 10: Pee-wee opts to accept a lift from a truck; Pee-wee chooses to disembark at the roadside diner.

Act 11: Pee-wee decides to work back his bill to the diner; Pee-wee decides to go see the sunrise with Simone.

Act 12: Pee-wee decides to flee from Simone’s boyfriend, Andy; Pee-wee decides to board a nearby freight train.

Act 13: Pee-wee decides to accept Johnny’s company aboard the train; Pee-wee later escapes the train near the Alamo.

Act 14: Pee-wee decides to attend the length of the Alamo tour; Pee-wee later chooses to leave after discovering it doesn’t have a basement.

Act 15: Pee-wee decides to receive and see off Simone at the bus station; Pee-wee later decides to call Dottie and apologise.

Act 16: Pee-wee decides to go get his wired-over bus ticket; Pee-wee later chooses to flee from Andy who’s at the bus station.

Act 17: Pee-wee decides to disguise himself but is knocked unconscious whilst bull-riding; Pee-wee later decides to enter a bar looking for a telephone.

Act 18: Pee-wee decides to shush the biker gang; Pee-wee decides to alleviate their anger by dancing.

Act 19: Pee-wee decides to head to Hollywood to retrieve his bicycle; Pee-wee decides to enter the Warner Brothers’ lot and track down Kevin Morton.

Act 20: Pee-wee decides to disguise himself and enter the set; Pee-wee decides to take the bicycle then and there and escape.

Act 21: Pee-wee decides to evade the police on the Warner Brothers’ lot; Pee-wee decides to stunt-ramp his way off the lot.

Act 22: Pee-wee decides to stop by the burning pet store and save the animals; Pee-wee later decides to go with the arriving police.

Act 23: Pee-wee chooses to have his story made into a movie; Pee-wee decides to go to the drive-in premiere with all his friends.

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