At any age, watching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a trip to the edge, where the real world meets a cosmic prism that refracts it into a strange and wonderful realm. By now, the average moviegoer knows the story of the unconventional man-child and his quest to recover his beloved stolen red bicycle. Beyond it (and in some cases without having seen the film), they know who Pee-wee Herman is. One thing that doesn’t change from a childhood and an adulthood viewing of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the mythic stature that Paul Reubens— and reciprocally, the audience— has created around his character. From a child’s eyes, he is an oddball navigating the world, a world phantasmic but still reflective of life as a kid knows it: strange and a little overwhelming, but ultimately a wild ride that can yield wonder and joy. A revisit after spending decades on that strange but wild ride of life hits a little different, but Herman is still a vulnerable, contradictory, lovable descendant of Charlie Chaplin’s endearing Tramp character.
The Tramp, introduced in theaters over a century ago, is understandably more cemented in the public mind than Herman. A diminutive but steadfast silhouette in the face of misery and injustice, the Tramp is a whirlwind of incongruity in a shabby coat, a toothbrush mustache, and a fancy derby hat. Twirling his cane through such silent comedy classics as The Kid and City Lights, the hapless scamp fuses hilarity with melodrama, confronting humorless concepts of the real world with an innate absurdity that seemingly radiates from the tips of his cane and his oversized leather shoes. He’s a literal cog in the industrial machine of Modern Times, during an era of ramped-up capitalist manifest destiny. An early proponent of combining pathos with sentimentality on the big screen, Chaplin used comedy to elevate the inner nature of his most memorable character, a fertile genre sapling that would yield ever-growing foliage for decades to come.
Chaplin’s entertainment career originated on the stage. The child of a performer, young Charlie joined the Fred Karno pantomime troupe in 1908, playing various archetypes in music halls and theater before signing with Keystone Studios and presenting the Tramp in his first two appearances, Mabel’s Strange Predicament and Kid Auto Races at Venice, both in 1914. While not truly honed until the following year when Chaplin jumped over to the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, the Tramp enjoyed near-instant universal appeal due to the dualities he exhibited: among other qualities, he is casually vicious but chivalric towards women and children, and covets the luxuries of high society whilst thumbing his nose at the pompous wealthy.
Reubens, like Chaplin, had a hand in his own character’s forging from stage to screen and beyond. The Groundlings graduate developed his wacky Howdy Doody avatar from an improv prompt in the late 70s: give the most abysmal standup act an amateur could do. It was magical: audiences quickly ate up this fidgeting, high-pitched, rambling man before them. Warner Bros. picked up on the success of Reubens’ subsequent stage show centered around his character and hired him for a feature, which would become Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Like his twitchy-nosed predecessor, Reubens’ meteoric rise came as he left the modern-day music halls and traipsed onto celluloid.
The icons share a kinship of contradictions. Both can be chivalric, but deceptive when opportunity or desperation calls for it. From the moment he awakens, Pee-wee is impeccably frocked, with trimmed eyebrows and a healthy youthful blush. Physically, he doesn’t much resemble the aesthetically hodgepodge costume of the Tramp, but for a role model, you could do a lot worse. Pee-wee displays personal hygiene and a comfort in his own skin that attracts rather than repels—a trait that later saves him from an unpleasant death at the hands of an outlaw motorcycle gang. His appearance and demeanor reflect a man in a state of suspended adolescence, not asexual but pre-sexual (a quality that Reubens plays around with throughout the years; his 1981 live special at the Roxy delights in innuendos, while 2016’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday blurs the gender lines around all of its characters). A walking challenge to old concepts of masculinity, Pee-wee refers to himself as a “loner” and a “rebel,” and sits apart from society, neither wealthy like his obnoxious neighbor Francis Buxton (Mark Holton) nor destitute beyond sudden circumstance (like getting his wallet stolen by a psychic). While the adults are still reeling over the implications of Pee-wee’s breakfast delivery contraption (Who made the pancake batter, has that been left out overnight? How does the mechanical bird know just when to drop the bread into the toaster?), he has moved onto the window that’s actually a fish tank, and then proceeds to brush his teeth with a comically large scrubber.
The message, within minutes, is clear: don’t overthink this, just kick back and regress. You’re safe to be yourself here. That freedom of expression doesn’t change, even in the face of despair. Like his comedic ancestor, Pee-wee can face hostile environments and hostile forces (like a biker gang or, for Chaplin, a gargantuan, bullying gold prospector) and emerge the victor; it all adds up to a figure who is stumbling and galloping through life and all of its slings and arrows, just like anyone. Herman is vulnerable and joyfully subversive, and enjoys a universal appeal from it all. Thus, the perfect Dr. Pretorious to Pee-wee’s carefully stitched together persona comes in the form of a Burbank weirdo with a camera.
In a beautiful cosmic wink, Reubens and the film’s producers hired Tim Burton after the former watched Burton’s short film Frankenweenie and saw a kindred spirit of sensibilities. On Big Adventure and with a massive tonal assist from composer Danny Elfman (the first of many collaborations between the duo) Burton works with stylistic techniques honed by the likes of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. A revulsed sneer at realism, nearly every emotional scene of Big Adventure includes Seuss-ical distortions that project the internal gears grinding in Herman’s head. And what a fit—Herman’s magnetism is in part because he is plainly earnest and isn’t phony. The ending of City Lights, in which the Tramp reunites with a formerly blind woman who now recognizes him and accepts him as he is, is one of the most hopeful endings in cinema history largely because of the vast spectrum of feeling broadcast across every inch of his face throughout.
Likewise, Reubens’ creation does not feel things internally. If he feels joy at a bag of old-fashioned trick gags, he grins from ear to ear and lets out a belly laugh. When upset, his shoulders may drop in an exaggerated slump, when concentrating (riding his bike to win the Tour de France, for example), his lips disappear into a frustrated slit like those of a schoolboy throwing his best-developed fastball. When Pee-wee discovers that his bike has been stolen, the world suddenly becomes frightening and overwhelming, and Burton amplifies it with a visual syntax of the overwhelming feelings of childhood. Shot from below, a waving clown statue towers over the theft victim, mocking him with glee. Wheels then occupy every inch of the frame, from a comically oversized penny farthing bike passing by, to an RC car driven by a child. The Word of the Day through the crisp ninety-minute runtime is “feeling,” not just how Pee-wee feels, but how intensely he feels it. Pairing that rawness with the innate fantastical Otherness Pee-wee carries is a sword-in-the-stone task that, in retrospect, only Burton could have done effectively.
And so, on the advice of a charlatan, Pee-wee embarks on a quest to the Alamo to retrieve his Schwinn. From an escaped convict to a run-in with a ghost and a biker gang, every community and subculture he encounters adheres to the absurdities of his existence, not the other way around. It’s how he can be detained and threatened by the Satan’s Helpers, and suddenly borrow platform leisure shoes from a member of the waitstaff in order to dance his way into the hearts of everyone in the establishment. It’s how, in Pee-wee’s wake, a beach blanket bingo party comes to a winter wonderland, and Godzilla hitches a ride on Santa’s sleigh. Pee-wee, like the Tramp, enriches the lives of nearly everyone he comes across.
Over three decades beyond its 1985 release, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure enjoys a healthy place in the pop culture consciousness. Its star, Pee-wee Herman, has reached beyond the screen and grabbed hold of icon status. Pee-wee’s subsequent legacy kept much of the same psychedelic, moralistic energy. Pee-wee’s Playhouse tv series was assembled in the wake of Big Adventure’s success; therein, amid the pulp-punk kitsch of Gary Panter’s chaotic set designs (he would pick up a couple of Emmys for them), oversized sentient furniture and cheeky puppets joined Pee-wee to bid their young viewers worship at the shrine of unbridled imaginative freedom and ravenous learning. The whole environment fostered a youthful vibe, from Panter, the underground LA artist-cum-art director, to creative consultant Nicole Panter who formerly managed The Germs, to the supporting cast comprised of fellow Groundlings. At the center of the supernova stood five feet ten inches of creative energy in a crisp gray tuxedo, his red bow tie affixed as immaculately as a clown’s bulbous nose.
Today Pee-wee’s Playhouse is widely available on DVD, two sequels have continued his evolution as a character, and as of this publishing, the Safdie Brothers are attached to a documentary project for HBO, on Reubens himself. Thirty-six years later, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure stands tall, not so much a saga of technical prowess or uncharted concepts, but of storytelling refinement and radical creative cross-pollination, resulting in a spirit that is impossible to mimic.