Childhood dreams (and nightmares) brightly live again in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”

UW Cinematheque celebrates Paul Reubens with a screening of Tim Burton’s absurdist adventure-comedy on September 1.
A man (Pee-wee Herman) with an exaggerated, yet ambiguous expression wears a glen plaid suit and red bowtie. He puts his left hand to his ear and stares off-screen to the left.
Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) listens to reason in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

UW Cinematheque celebrates Paul Reubens with a screening of Tim Burton’s absurdist adventure-comedy on September 1.

When you reach a certain age, everything from your childhood can begin to feel like a dream. So it makes sense that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) opens within the confines of a fantasy as Paul Reubens’ titular Pee-wee wins the Tour de France on his tricked-out bicycle. It’s a film whose oddball character exists in an uncanny valley between adolescence and adulthood.

For viewers in the mid-1980s, Tim Burton’s film was likely their introduction to the Pee-wee Herman character. As someone born a year after its original release, I’ve never known a world without him. I was a devoted viewer of Reubens’ Playhouse TV series growing up, and came to know Big Adventure well from plentiful re-airings on the Disney Channel. Stumbling across it always felt a little disorienting, as if I’d woken up in the middle of a still-unfolding dream. It was like something I conjured rather than watched.

When Reubens died at the untimely age of 70 in late July, it had been two decades since I’d seen Big Adventure. But his influence still reverberates in everything from the adults-playing-tweens in pen15 to the shouty sketch comedy of I Think You Should Leave. Now that I have a niece and nephew around the age I was when I discovered him, I was curious to see how Pee-wee’s singularly bizarre energy held up and what enchantments it might hold for modern kids. Those interested in finding out for themselves can see the film in a DCP presentation at UW Cinematheque on Friday, September 1, at 7 p.m.

The plot satirizes the Italian neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948), though you don’t need to have any knowledge of the ins and outs of that film to enjoy Big Adventure; I certainly didn’t when I was 10. Pee-wee’s bike is the object of envy for his spoiled nemesis Francis Buxton (a juvenile also unnervingly played by a full-grown adult, Mark Holton.) When the bike is stolen, Pee-wee takes it upon himself to find the culprit. A psychic points him to “the basement of the Alamo,” and a cross-country quest ensues.

The film grossed a respectable $40 million at the box office, but has since become a cult classic. For the uninitiated, there’s no better way to introduce yourself to the antics of Pee-wee than in a room full of people who love them. David Ansen of Newsweek called the film “Mattel Surrealism” in his contemporaneous review; and like a certain candy-colored blockbuster released this year, Burton’s film has as many laughs to offer adults as kids. Big Adventure brims with wild visual jokes, goofy wordplay, and enough movie references to please the pickiest cinephile. Parents of particularly young children should be advised that there are a few jump scares.

For those of us who grew up with Pee-wee, it’s also a poignant opportunity to revisit his off-the-wall adventures. Inevitably, we leave the things of childhood behind, including the art we once loved. It might not precisely look how we remembered it, but there’s something reassuring in knowing that it will always be there for us when we need it.

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