“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”

Director Tim Burton and star Paul Reubens wanted to take every prop home. Who wouldn't want a rocket ship in the living room?

Topics: Tim burton, Movies,

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily
Warner Home Video; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director and star audio commentary, music-only track with composer commentary, storyboards, more

The only thing wrong with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” is that the real world looks so drab and colorless by comparison. After the last frame, reacclimation to normal surroundings can be tough: You wish you had a giant box of magic crayons so you could rev up the hue of everything in sight.

That’s no accident. As production designer David Snyder notes in one of the special DVD features, there wasn’t a lot of time or money allotted for the project, so he and his crew had to use colors and shapes wisely to get the right look. Their motto, he says, was: “If it ain’t bright, it ain’t right.”

Everything about “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” from its toy-box colors to its superb, hyperanimated Danny Elfman score to the butch-waxed hairdo and wooden-puppet walk of its star and mastermind, Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens), is pure pleasure. Pee-wee’s beloved bicycle — a gleaming, souped-up version of every ’50s dream bike you ever saw advertised in the back of a comic book — has been stolen. Spoiled rich kid Francis (Mark Holton) may or may not be the thief. Pee-wee’s search for the missing bike leads him to strange and exotic locales like the Alamo, a movie studio, a biker bar and a truck stop complete with nearby dinosaur exhibit.

The dinosaur exhibit was a real California location, not a set, Reubens and director Tim Burton explain in their audio commentary, and it’s just one example of the movie’s insanely creative use of found objects and places to fashion a very unreal and wonderful world. “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” was Burton’s first full-length feature, and every scene is a marvel of visual ingenuity. One example: Pee-wee’s home is furnished with a breakfast machine, a Rube Goldberg-type contraption that features, among other things, a flying pterodactyl skeleton with little clamps on its toes, from which it drops two pieces of bread into the appropriate toast slots.

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Reubens’ and Burton’s commentary is entertaining, if fairly low-key — Burton comes off as a grown-up version of the shy kid who’d prefer to retreat to his room with a set of paints and a science-experiment kit. Every now and then one of them comments on how they wish they’d snatched up this or that prop, and you can’t blame them — who wouldn’t want a mini-rocket-ship ride in his living room? With “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” Burton established himself as a movie director with an art director’s touch. In his commentary, he notes that he has a penchant for moving things around a lot to get just the right look. “I guess I’m just a frustrated interior decorator,” he says. If only we could get him to redecorate the world.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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