The “Cruel Summer” series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), and PURPLE RAIN (1984).
The summer of 1985 was, quite simply, the worst summer of the 1980s. I should qualify that statement by saying it was just impossible for that summer’s crop of movies to live up to the pop ecstasy of summer ’84. The inmates-running-the-asylum aesthetic of such movies as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Top Secret!, Purple Rain, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was now being replaced by a safer, more conservative one. Ronald Reagan had been re-elected and it seemed as if order was being restored. Of course there is no evidence for a correlation between Reagan’s re-election and the conservative, retro tone of the movies from summer ’85 (most of the movies were in production when Reagan was elected), but it sure felt like there was one. Rambo: First Blood Part II, A View to a Kill, Fletch, Brewster’s Millions, Pale Rider, Silverado, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, D.A.R.Y.L., Cocoon, Day of the Dead, Explorers, The Black Cauldron, and European Vacation all had a haven’t-I-seen-this-before feeling about them. Spielberg, who had taken a critical lashing for the intensity of Temple of Doom and was in the middle of making his first bid at “adult” filmmaking with The Color Purple, gave a peace offering by producing the junior Indiana Jones romp The Goonies and the Eisenhower-meets-Reagan time travel comedy Back to the Future. (I should stress that some of these cinematic reruns were quite entertaining, particularly the Rambo sequel and the two Spielbergs.)
Then, near the end of the summer, a spate of movies came out that, rather than rehashing worn-out movie trends, attempted to both deconstruct and comment on certain genre conventions. Tom Holland’s Fright Night used comedy and eroticism (and gory special effects) to rebut all those witless slasher movies, while Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead was a much needed antidote to George Romero’s heavy-handed zombie movies. And Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius was like a teen raunch comedy written by Albert Einstein. But one movie seemingly came out of nowhere and signaled a change in mainstream American movies.
Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a candy-colored toy box of a movie. A series of sight gags, non-sequiturs, and flights of invention, the movie has a mad, on-the-fly structure, built with the insane logic of a children’s story. The story, as much as there is one, is about a boy and his dog, or in this case, a boy and his bike. There’s such an elemental purity to Pee-wee’s attachment to his bike, that when it’s stolen, we totally identify with his anger and feeling of helplessness and are willing to follow him anywhere in order to be reunited with his bike, even if that means going to Texas!
At the center of everything is Pee-wee Herman, a man-child who looks like a cross between 50s kids’ show host Pinky Lee and a mime. As embodied by Paul Reubens, Pee-wee’s initial appeal was the way his child-like innocence allowed him to get away with making sexually-tinged remarks. The sexual innuendo and physical comedy of, say, the famous 1981 HBO special The Pee-Wee Herman Show was startling in the way it made us recognize the countless inappropriate moments that make up our childhood. And Pee-wee’s speaking voice was like a cross between a guttural snort and a high-pitched whine. Depending on your tolerance of adolescent humor, Pee-wee Herman was either the most obnoxious character since Tony Clifton or a cross between Harold Lloyd and a child star.
Burton’s training as an artist and animator allows him to stretch the boundaries of movie frame. (It was his animated shorts Vincent and especially Frankenweenie, with its story of a boy re-animating his dead dog, that led to him getting the job of directing Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.) He brings an animator’s sensibilty to the live-action form. The cinematography by Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon, Cloak & Dagger) has a tactile Pop Art look, as if the color processing was done by Crayola. (Red and grAy never looked so shiny.) The production design by David L. Snyder makes everything look like a pop-up book come to life. Pee-wee’s kitchen is one big impractical Rube Goldberg breakfast machine, A kid’s idea of efficiency. (The joke of this contraption is that it goes off without a hitch.) Of course, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is most remembered for Danny Elfman’s first collaboration with Burton. Reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s ragtime Gremlins theme, Elfman’s score is a cross between Saturday morning cartoon themes and the music you hear upon arriving at the circus. Elfman has fun adapting the main musical theme for the movie’s many environments. (I especially like how the music gets a slight Mariachi flavor when Pee-wee visits Texas.) Elfman’s scores of late have been rather routine in their eccentricity, but his early collaborations with Burton (not to mention his scores for Midnight Run and the first Mission: Impossible) gave the telegraphing emotionalism of movie scores by guys like David Grusin and John Wlliams a much needed injection of playfulness.
The adventures that Pee-wee has are so disjointed that their unpredictability keeps you in a delightful state of anticipation. The screenplay by Reubens, Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol keeps sequences brief, almost like extended sketches. (Reubens and Hartman got their start at The Groundlings.) It’s as if the vignettes are a kid’s idea of what places they’ve never been to are like. When Pee-wee attempts to hitchhike across the country, there’s no real danger because we know he can handle himself, even when he’s picked up by an escaped convict. (Curiously, this sequence contains the only moment of sexuality as Pee-wee helps the fugitive Mickey (Judd Omen) evade capture by pretending to be his wife. After they’re clear of the authorities, Mickey gives Pee-wee a fleeting once-over. The rest of the movie is devoid of Pee-wee’s trademark sexual innuendo.) A biker bar is like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, while all of Pee-wee’s fears are visualized through stop-motion animation, especially Large Marge. The highlight of the movie is when Pee-wee goes on a tour of the Alamo in hopes of locating his bike in the basement. Jan Hooks’ performance as the perky, gum-chewing tour guide is a little masterpiece of comic timing. (“Do we have any Mexican-Americans with us?”) As a native of San Antonio, I found this sequence almost cathartic as it deflated the unquestioned reverence towards the Alamo.
The climax of the movie is like a mini It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as Pee-wee finds his bike on the Warner Brothers studio lot and cycles though several adventures in the span of ten minutes. Pee-wee makes appearances in everything from a Japanese monster movie to a Twisted Sister video all the while enjoying every moment of it. The mash-up of movie genres and sleight-of-hand visual gags is dizzying. Burton’s most subversive joke comes after Pee-wee has caused all manner of destruction, when the execs at Warners want to make his story into a movie. Little did anyone know just how telling this twist would be as the studio’s co-opting of Pee-wee’s adventure would foretell Hollywood’s growing awareness of the audience’s desire to claim a movie (or, more accurately, a movie’s sensibility) as theirs. Studios may not have fully understood Burton’s funhouse mix of 50s horror and deadpan humor, but they could see that audiences were connecting with it. Studios quickly learned it was good business to allow directors with just enough rebel-outsider “vision” to helm their big-ticket projects as a way to entice audiences growing ever more skeptical of being “sold” a movie. Everyone from the Coen brothers to Wes Anderson to Peter Jackson to J. J. Abrams to Guillermo Del Toro to Joss Whedon have done a brilliant job of maintaining their cult figure status while shaping mainstream audiences’ tastes. With Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, both Tim Burton and Pee-wee Herman showed that you could find success in being different.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.