Pee-wee's Big Adventure ★★★★

Commentary by Tim Burton and Paul Reubens

Pee-wee Herman was a notable part of my childhood, primarily through Pee-wee's Playhouse but also in this movie. I didn't have it on VHS, but I remember watching it a few times at a babysitter's house. I think one of the other kids she watched had it and he brought it over. We also watched it in school once, as I recall, on one of those days where we were just killing time until a holiday break or something. I hadn't seen it since my youth when I re-watched it in 2010, and I was both surprised and pleased to find it still held up.

However, in the time since that viewing, I finally got around to seeing some Federico Fellini films and it wasn't until now that I realized that Pee-wee's Big Adventure is essentially a Fellini film made for juveniles. Danny Elfman's score was clearly heavily influenced by Nina Rota's work for Fellini, for one thing. There's also the anthology structure of the story, bouncing around among several different characters and subplots. This film is often rooted as much in the surreal as it is in the universal, perhaps the single defining characteristic of Fellini's works. Now I wish this had been shot in black and white.

In their commentary track, Paul Reubens and Tim Burton acknowledge Fellini as influence, but they don't expound on the point much. That's fine, of course, since their focus is on recounting the evolution and production of this film, but for me this was an epiphany that I think at least partly explains why I took so effortlessly to Fellini. It's neat to connect those dots.

I recently learned that Kris Kristofferson was inspired by La strada when he wrote "Me and Bobby McGee" (an anecdote shared in an interview on Criterion's DVD release of Two-Lane Blacktop), and that La strada is Pope Francis's favorite film of all time. Ergo, I have concluded that it would be a lark to watch Pee-wee's Big Adventure with the Pope and Kristofferson.

As for the commentary itself, there are some amusing moments and recollections, but mostly it's pretty standard fare. Burton laughs throughout, clearly amused by the film and his recollection of the work that went into it. Reubens is the straight man, keeping the conversation on point and moving. He breaks out lots of trivia, clearly either having a terrific memory or a stack of note cards.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#383/1591)

Pee-wee's Big Adventure > The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad --> #383
Pee-wee's Big Adventure is more original, more enjoyable and more satisfying than The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

Pee-wee's Big Adventure > Barbershop --> #383
This is one of those times where nostalgia is a tie-breaker. Winner: Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure > Paris je t'aime --> #199
What's better than an anthology made by A-list stars and directors in loving tribute to the most romantic city in the world? A Fellini film for juveniles.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure > The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou --> #100
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is why I got into Wes Anderson movies, but Pee-wee's Big Adventure is why I was able to get into Fellini films. Fellini > Anderson.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure < Forgetting Sarah Marshall --> #100
It turns out that no matter how long or hard I stare at this match, I still have to make a choice. Going with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but I'm not entirely sure I can even say why.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure < Return of the Jedi --> #100
As a child, this would have easily gone to Pee-wee's Big Adventure; I had no regard for Star Wars until my adolescence. I've been thrilled that Pee-wee still holds up, but despite my appreciation for it, and my overall Star Wars fatigue, I find myself favoring Return of the Jedi.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure > Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol --> #86
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is my favorite in that series, but the combination of personal nostalgia and critical appreciation for Pee-wee's Big Adventure is hard to beat.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure < Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace --> #86
I have greater appreciation for Pee-wee's Big Adventure, but I have stronger personal memories associated with The Phantom Menace.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure < Up --> #86
Pee-wee's Big Adventure is more even, and in some ways more impressive, but the good elements of Up are stronger.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure < Dracula (1931) --> #86
Pee-wee's Big Adventure leaves fewer unanswered questions, that's for certain, but Lugosi was too good to be beaten here.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure > Sideways --> #85
I'll fluctuate on this one depending on my mood. This time, I favor Pee-wee's Big Adventure by a hair.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #85/1591