Retro Review: A Boy and His Bike: Is PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE a Hero’s Journey into the Heart of a Child?

By Tom Drake
Contributing Blogger

Art Opening & A Movie Presents PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985); Dir: Tim Burton; Written by Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens & Michael Varhol; Starring Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton; Featuring pieces from the citywide Sopo Art Bike Show 2011;  Tues. Sept. 6, opening reception 8 PM with movie at 9:30 pm; Encore Sat. Sept. 10 at 3 PM; 35 mm; Plaza TheatreTrailer here.

In the spirit of Atlanta Retro, I shall mimic a feature of the old Infocom games with a short, medium and verbose description of this review of PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE.

Short: A man. A plan. A Bike. A Truck. The Alamo.

Medium: Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) is a dork, nerd and geek who has never grown up and owns a house full of interesting crap. He has all kinds of gizmos that cook him breakfast and stuff. His prize possession is a bike which has secret magical powers. The village idiot (who happens to be rich) pays someone to steal the bike. The rest of the movie consists of Pee Wee Herman trying to get his bike back. He runs into all kinds of weird characters and finds weird places. In one memorable scene, he runs into the ghost of Large Marge (Alice Nunn). Be sure to pay as much attention as possible to the expression on Large Marge’s face when Pee Wee asks her what happened to her. Oh, and there is a happy ending.

Pee Wee races his beloved bike in PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURES. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

There is a romantic subplot with his friend Dottie (Elizabeth Dailey), as well as a movie being made about the movie you’re watching. Look, just leave common sense at the door; it’s just fun to watch. The music is by Danny Elfman and is some of his better stuff. Finally, there is an extremely memorable scene in the bar where Pee Wee dances for his life. Indeed, it’s probably the most well-remembered scene of the movie.

Maximum Verbosity: Pee Wee is the iconic morphication of the Fool as seen in the collective archetype that we all think of when we look back to our childish side. Childish…or childlike? These two terms have distinct and important meanings. Childish is the spoiled petulant brat who won’t eat his prunes when you give it to them for breakfast and then throws them in your face in a fit of ingratitude. Childlike is the spritely innocence of youth that we all remember with the great nostalgia of yesteryear. Ah, the happy memories of youth, where does the time fly? In Pee Wee, we find elements of both these definitions such that he occasionally acts childlike but also childish.

Pee Wee rides side-saddle in PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The arc of the character is rather extraordinary, in which through a coming of age, he realizes that sometimes the feelings of other people do actually matter, and that perhaps there might be a few things in the world slightly more important than his bike. Of course, given the complete lack of continuity between Dottie and Pee Wee’s relationship between the sequels, we must think that the lesson did not really take, and that Pee Wee is more of a cartoon character than a human being, but only in the capacity that he acts like one and seems to have physiological similarities.

We must ask ourselves, what is the real philosophy behind, “I know you are, but what am I?” Is this merely a childish (sorry, childlike) taunt or does it becry a desire to know who he is in a chaotic universe? Does his neonatal rebirth at the discovery that the Alamo has no basement initiate an existential crisis worthy of the camera time devoted to it? Is Pee Wee seeking deeper and profound meaning, or is it merely being thrust upon him by the need we have as a culture of imposing morality and lessons upon that which will not otherwise receive it? Is this change or the illusion of change?

Pee Wee's house in PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The dinosaurs are particularly fascinating as a recurring theme throughout the film. I think we can say with a surety that surely some genre-linked commonalities extend between the wonder at Dinosaurs in PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and JURASSIC PARK. Indeed, when we sat in the theater and saw the dinosaurs for the first time, was not a part of the character of Pee Wee Herman there with us, or were we alone with Mr. Herman himself languishing in jail for exposing himself?

To me, it is excellent that Paul Reubens is enjoying a resurgence in his career since he is an excellent actor. One of my personal favorite movies of all time, MYSTERY MEN [based on a comic series by Atlanta comics creator Bob Burden of FLAMING CARROT fame] afforded an excellent conveyance of Reubens’ comic genius when he allowed himself to be humped by a skunk. Thus the 1991 incident has formed a kind of strange blurring of the ironic innocent with the slightly scuzzy innocent.

The future looks bright for Mr. Reubens, who apparently is planning a movie about his TV series PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE which may or may not have Johnny Depp or Justin Bieber in it. The future is unclear. We walk now, back on the journey of life, uncertain of the future of his career or his movies, but certain that somewhere out there, giant neon dinosaurs will greet us if we only open our hearts to find them.

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