Hollywood careers can be roller coaster rides of joyous highs and debilitating lows. Paul Reubens
can tell you. Even though he’s logged plenty of time in the industry’s basement of shame, his alter ego, Pee-Wee Herman, is enjoying a festive revival.
Reubens recently blew the dust off his Pee-Wee Herman Show
for a 2010 stage production that resurrected beloved characters such as Miss Yvonne, Cowboy Curtis and Jambi for shows in Los Angeles and New York. An HBO telecast of the Broadway hit recently was nominated for three 2011 Emmy Awards. And Reubens’ imaginative collaboration with a young Tim Burton – the 1985 feature Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
– has received a welcome spit-polish by Warner Bros. for an anticipated Blu-ray release.
That last accomplishment got me thinking that now might be a good time to introduce your children to Pee-Wee’s whimsical, wonderful world. So, let’s pour Mr. T cereal on our pancakes, sing “Tequila” in a biker bar, tour the Alamo’s basement, take a picture (because it’ll last longer), and figure out when you can watch Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with your kids.
Red Flags: Tell ‘em Large Marge sent ya!
If we were talking about Reubens’ 1980 HBO series, there would be plenty of red flags to point out. For those who don’t know, Reubens’ Pee-Wee bit started as a Groundlings sketch and worked very, very blue. I still remember sneaking episodes of Pee-Wee’s adult-oriented, late-night comedy show from my parents. Who knew mirrors on your shoes could help you see up a girl’s skirt?
But the comedian gradually tailored Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the subsequent Pee-Wee’s Playhouse to a much younger audience, and his career was all the better for it.
That’s not to say there isn’t one or two things that gave me pause during Burton’s blissfully imaginative feature-film debut. For starters, Big Adventure treats Pee-Wee’s bicycle with such reverence (and rightfully so, as it’s one sweet ride) that kids might be upset when our hero loses it. There’s also a teachable moment about caring too much for extraneous items – be it a toy, a bike or another disposable object – because it can cause real heartache when these superficial things break or disappear. Pee-Wee’s obsession with his bike takes him on a memorable adventure, but it also alienates him from true friends like perky Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) or kindly Simone (Diane Salinger).
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure also gives us a sneak peek, every once in a while, at the morbidly bizarre humor Burton would bring to his next few pictures, from Beetlejuice and Batman to Edward Scissorhands. The ghoulish transformation of Large Marge (Alice Nunn) and Pee-Wee’s troubles in a seedy biker bar could put your youngest children on guard. And Burton includes a handful of disturbing dream sequences, with Pee-Wee’s bike being devoured by a dinosaur and dismantled by clowns (who’d fit in on the director’s Gotham streets, come to think of it).
But for the most part, Burton and Reubens deliver a kid-friendly road comedy that had me grinning from ear-to-ear from the very first scene. Let’s find out why in the Green Lights section.
Green Lights: The stars at night, are big and bright …
Watching Burton pull a steady stream of visual tricks out of his bottomless grab bag makes me wish the director struck up a multi-picture collaboration with Reubens instead of longtime creative partner Johnny Depp.
Nothing against Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow or last year’s Alice in Wonderland, but the young Burton plugged directly into Reubens’ whimsical brain, and their shared ideas transform Big Adventure into a magical world of pure imagination, to borrow a phrase from another of Burton’s inspirations.
You could spend a week with your kids exploring the inspired funhouse that is Burton’s set design. Whether it’s a T-Rex squeezing an orange to make juice or Abe Lincoln flipping flapjacks onto Pee-Wee’s ceiling, the opening scenes in our hero’s eccentric abode provide a humorous brand of sensory overload that’s tailor-made for artistic children.
But thanks to Reubens’ original prop comedy (love the lengthy chain Pee-Wee uses to secure his bike, to no avail), his tireless facial reactions, and his keen sense of timing, Burton’s able to carry the Playhouse into our world … or, at the very least, a Burton-ized version.
Every stop on Pee-Wee’s journey provides a fresh joy, and most experiences are underlined with Reubens’ childish sense of astonishment and good-natured enthusiasm. It makes Pee-Wee’s humor infectious, right down to his final ride into the sunset with Dottie in tow. I want to call Reubens a genius, just to see it he’d respond with, “I know you are, but what am I?”
Guaranteed, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure will be the first and only film co-starring Twisted Sister that I’ll tell you is appropriate for every member of your family. Because even though the hair-metal headbangers sing “Burn In Hell” as Pee-Wee escapes off a Hollywood backlot, everything else about Big Adventure is characterized by such a big heart that you’d be missing out by not sharing this gem with your kids.
Forced to put an age on it, I’d say children as young as five can ride along with Pee-Wee for this cross country rescue mission. I hadn’t seen Burton’s comedy in at least 15 years. Maybe longer. And it made me laugh. Hard. Guiltily. But hard. I’d love to make you watch it with your kids … but I don’t make monkeys. I just train them.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Spy Kids, to name just a few.