92 minutes. While it’s far from unusual for movies to clock-in at insane lengths, even the average Judd Apatow film is over 2 hours long, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure put an irremovable imprint on our popular culture in a mere 92 minutes. The film, produced on a shoe-string budget of $6 million, not only converted Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman character from a quirky cult figure to a household name, it also jump-started the cinematic careers of both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, the powerhouse duo that have since gone on to collaborate on more than a dozen films. The film was among the 20 highest grossing films of 1985, along with Back to the Future, The Color Purple, The Breakfast Club, and The Goonies, despite having never played in more than 900 theaters at a given time. How is it possible that a film about a man-child trying to find his bike, a tricked-out vintage Schwinn, could have achieved such a degree of success?
It’s hard to say, exactly. Like most things in life, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure seems to have benefited by being placed at the right place and right time. The film was green-lit by Warner Brothers, primarily on the success of Pee-wee’s national tour, which included a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, and his regular appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. The film’s plot was nearly based on a different adventure all together, Pee-wee playing Pollyanna, influencing a town of old-grumpies to turn their collective frowns upside-down. Think Big Top Pee-wee, Big Adventure’s less successful 1988 follow-up, without the circus and the hot-dog tree. Instead, Reubens found himself captivated by the near-obsession people had with bicycles on the Warner Brothers lot. He typed “Pee-wee loves his bicycle more than life itself” into the typewriter and movie history was soon to be made. The script was turned out fairly quickly, co-written with Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, and shot almost entirely based on its first draft. Barring some changes made in the editing room, what was in the script is virtually identical to what appears on the screen.
However, as detailed as the script was, it was Tim Burton who ultimately gave the film it’s unique sense of style. Under his watch, the breakfast machine sequence went from a one-line description in the script to a nearly three-minute extravaganza that has made for numerous YouTube parodies. The animated dream sequences were included largely because of Burton’s own familiarity with stop-motion, harkening all the way back to his days at Disney working on short films like “Vincent.” The movie’s infamous Large Marge, a phantom truck driver who gives Pee-wee a ride, induced nightmares for a generation of children, including Disney celebrities Dylan and Cole Sprouse from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. The amazing effect, created with assistance from The Chiodo Brothers of California, was recently featured in the Tim Burton exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Not bad for 92 minute movie with a $6 million budget.
Although many still choose to view Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as Burton’s “film before he got famous,” that’s simply an unfair claim. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the movie that made Burton famous. By the director’s own admission, the success of the film was the catalyst for Warner Brothers giving the green-light not only to Beetlejuice, but also Batman. The collaboration between Burton and Elfman, that began on Big Adventure, has lasted twenty-five years and will certainly continue for many more, creating memorable themes for films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. Of course, the biggest achievement of the film’s may be that it sparked the interest of an executive at CBS, who saw an advance screening and perused Reubens for months to take his unique fantasy-world and bring it to Saturday morning children’s television. While a lot of convincing was required to get Reubens to put his movie-star aspirations on hold for Saturday morning, when he realized the freedom he would have to essentially do whatever he wanted, the actor jumped at the chance. Of course, Pee-wee’s Playhouse went on to an unprecedented amount of commercial and critical success, winning more than a handful worth of Emmy Awards over its short 45-episode run. For a period of time in the 1980s, Pee-wee Herman, with his tight gray suit, red bowtie, and schoolyard taunts, captivated the nation. He taught us how to remain young at heart and win over a crowd of angry bikers by dancing along with “Tequila,” all in 92 minutes. So, happy birthday to a truly amazing film that despite it’s cult status, is still under-appreciated by the mainstream. I know you’re cool, but what am I?