Pee-wee's Big Adventure

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Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tim Burton
Produced by Robert Shapiro
Richard Gilbert Abramson
Written by Phil Hartman
Paul Reubens
Michael Varhol
Starring Paul Reubens
Elizabeth Daily
Mark Holton
Diane Salinger
Judd Omen
Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Edited by Billy Weber
Aspen Film Society
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • August 9, 1985 (1985-08-09)
Running time
90 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $40,940,662

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is a 1985 American adventure comedy film directed by Tim Burton in his full-length film directing debut and starring Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman. Reubens also co-wrote the script with Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol. Supporting roles are played by Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger and Judd Omen. The film, a retelling of the 1948 Italian classic Bicycle Thieves,[1] tells the tale of Pee-wee Herman embarking on a nationwide adventure, in search of his stolen bicycle.

After the success of The Pee-wee Herman Show, Reubens began writing the script to Pee-wee's Big Adventure when he was hired by Warner Bros. Pictures. The producers and Reubens hired Burton to direct when they were impressed with his work on Vincent and Frankenweenie. Filming took place in both California and Texas.

The film was released on August 9, 1985, grossing over $40 million worldwide. it eventually developed into a cult film and has since accumulated positive feedback. The film was nominated for a Young Artist Award and spawned a sequel, Big Top Pee-wee (1988). The financial success of the film, followed by the equally successful Beetlejuice in 1988, prompted Warner Bros. to hire Burton as the director for the 1989 film Batman.


Pee-wee Herman is a puer aeternus with a bicycle he treasures and that his neighbor, Francis Buxton, covets. A bike shop employee, Dottie, has a crush on Pee-Wee, but he does not reciprocate it. Pee-Wee's bike gets stolen while he's at the mall and he confronts Francis, but lacks proof. Pee-wee then offers a $10,000 reward for his bike. Francis, who did indeed steal the bike, is frightened by Pee-Wee's relentlessness and pays to have it sent away.

Desperate, Pee-wee visits a medium, Madam Ruby, who lies that his bike is in the basement of the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Texas. Pee-wee begins hitchhiking, getting rides from a fugitive, Mickey, and from a ghostly trucker, Large Marge.

At a truck stop, Pee-wee discovers his wallet is missing and pays for his meal by washing dishes. He befriends Simone, a waitress who dreams of visiting Paris, and Pee-Wee encourages her to stop doubting as they watch the sun rise. Simone's jealous boyfriend, Andy, misconstrues this as a fling and tries to attack Pee-Wee. Pee-wee flees into a boxcar on a moving train where he meets Hobo Jack, and eventually reaches San Antonio. Disappointed to learn the Alamo has no basement, Pee-wee contacts Dottie and informs her of his situation. At a bus stop, Pee-wee runs into Simone as she boards a bus, leaving on her way to Paris, whom encourages him not to give up his search. Andy, stalking Simone, sees Pee-Wee and resumes his attack. Pee-wee evades Andy at a rodeo by disguising himself as a competitor in the bronco busting competition. He rides well but receives a concussion and develops temporary amnesia, while Andy must flee an angry bull who sees his red shirt.

Pee-wee enters a biker bar to use the telephone, where an outlaw motorcycle club, The Satan's Helpers, expel him. Pee-wee then accidentally knocks over their motorcycles, enraging the gang. His life threatened, Pee-wee makes a last request: to dance to Tequila. He thereby wins the respect of the bikers, who accept him as one of their own and give him a motorcycle. Pee-wee crashes it through a billboard and ends up in hospital, where he has a surreal nightmare of clown doctors performing joke repairs on his bike. Awakening with his memory restored, Pee-wee learns from a TV interview that his bike was bought by Warner Brothers, and is now used as a prop in a movie starring Kevin Morton, a pretentious child star.

By mixing into Milton Berle's entourage, Pee-wee sneaks onto the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, California. After disguising himself as a nun, he steals his bike back from Morton. Pee-wee flees, chased by security staff, through a variety of sets, causing havoc throughout the lot and interrupting the shooting of a music video for Twisted Sister's Burn in Hell. Pee-wee's bike has numerous gadgets which he uses along with sleight-of-hand to evade the guards and escape the studio. Outside, Pee-wee discovers a burning pet shop. He heroically rescues the animals but faints on the sidewalk just as police and firefighters arrive. Though the firefighters hail Pee-wee as a hero, the police arrest him. Pee-wee is brought before a WB executive, who says Pee-Wee is the rightful owner of the bike and agrees to have all charges dismissed. Warner Brothers believes Pee-Wee's experience would make a good movie. Acquitted, Pee-wee is overjoyed to see Dottie brought in the executive's office along with his bike.

Some time later, at a drive-in, Pee-wee and Dottie attend the premiere of the action B-movie starring James Brolin as P.W. and Morgan Fairchild as Dottie fighting ninjas who steal an important motorcycle. Pee-wee has a cameo appearance as a bellhop. At the premiere, Pee-Wee gives refreshments to all the friends he met along his journey, all of whom are living slightly better lives for having known him, as well as Mickey, who has been recaptured and furloughed in a prison bus to see the film. Pee-Wee also encounters Francis, who brags to the media about how knowledgeable he is about Pee-wee's bike but makes a fool of himself using one of the bicycle's gadgets. Pee-Wee offers to go bicycling with Dottie, who wonders why he is not staying for the rest of the film, causing Pee-Wee to remark it is not necessary, he lived it.


Michael Varhol who co-wrote the script with Reubens and Hartman cameos as a photographer. Director Tim Burton has an uncredited cameo[citation needed] as the street thug who confronts Pee-wee in a rainy back-alley. Other minor roles include Ed Herlihy as Mr. Buxton and Cassandra Peterson (a.k.a. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark) as Biker Mama. James Brolin portrays "P.W. Herman" and Morgan Fairchild is Dottie in the in-movie production about Pee-wee's life. Dee Snider and Twisted Sister, and veteran comedy star Milton Berle cameo as themselves.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure contains numerous "conceptual continuity" links to other Tim Burton films and other productions:

  • Several cast members from The Pee-Wee Herman Show (who would go on to appear in Pee-wee's Playhouse) have cameo roles in the film. In the movie studio sequence, Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne) plays the Mother Superior and John Paragon (Jambi the Genie) plays the high-voiced studio extra in red armor from whom Pee-Wee asks directions and the reporter interviewing Francis in the final scene at the drive-in is played by Phil Hartman (Cap'n Carl).
  • Jan Hooks (who played Tina) was a fellow member of The Groundlings comedy troupe with Reubens, Hartman and Paragon, who went on to co-star in Saturday Night Live with Hartman. She also had a cameo role as a publicist in Burton's Batman Returns
  • Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger (Simone) were reunited in the opening sequence of Burton's Batman Returns, in which they portrayed the parents of the Penguin.
  • Supporting actors Monte Landis (Mario) and Lou Cutell (Amazing Larry), who appeared together in a deleted scene in Mario's Magic Shop,[citation needed] had both appeared as extras in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.
  • In the Warner Bros. studio chase sequence, Pee-Wee rides through a set where a Japanese crew are filming a "kaiju" type monster movie.
  • The full chase sequence through Warner Bros Studios was originally longer than the version in the final cut of the film and showed much more of the WB backlot, including the vast storage yard where props and set pieces were stored.[citation needed] A full-scale prop of a Visitor shuttlecraft from the original TV miniseries V (1983) is clearly visible in the foreground in one shot. Another deleted scene in this section was filmed on the WB "Western town" set.[citation needed] Ennio Morricone's theme music from the score of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was to be used in that sequence.[citation needed]


One of the prop bicycles used in "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." On display in the Bicycle exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center

The success of The Pee-wee Herman Show prompted Warner Bros. to hire Paul Reubens to write a script for a full-length Pee-wee Herman film. Reubens' original idea was to do a remake of Pollyanna with Pee-wee Herman in the Hayley Mills role. Reubens claims that Pollyanna is his favorite film. Halfway through writing the script, Reubens noticed everyone at Warner Brothers had a bike to get around the backlot, and so he requested one of his own. This inspired Reubens to start on a new script.[2]

Having left The Walt Disney Company and with Frankenweenie receiving positive reviews within film studios, Tim Burton was looking for a full-length film to direct. When Reubens and the producers of Pee-wee's Big Adventure saw Burton's work on Vincent and Frankenweenie, they decided to hire Burton for their film.[3] Burton felt he connected with Reubens' personality and the humor of the Pee-wee Herman Show.[4] After hiring Burton to direct, Reubens, Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol reworked the script again.[5]

Filming locations included Glendale, Pomona, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, Burbank, Cabazon (at the Cabazon Dinosaurs[6]), Port Hueneme, California, and San Antonio, Texas.[7] Burton and Reubens had tensions with Warner Bros. studio executives over the shooting schedule.[8] Burton hired CalArts classmate Rick Heinrichs for scenes involving stop-motion animation.[8]


Pee-wee's Big Adventure
Film score by Danny Elfman
Released 1985
Danny Elfman chronology
Forbidden Zone
Pee-wee's Big Adventure

To compose the film score, Burton brought in Danny Elfman, who had previously composed the music for Forbidden Zone.[9] He relished the opportunity to compose an orchestral score rather than a pop score and wanted to it to be taken as the work of a composer rather than the dabbling of a pop musician.[10] Elfman already had the main title theme written before he signed on.[11] At the time, Elfman was the lead singer of Oingo Boingo, but the working relationship between Burton and Elfman would overshadow his performing life and continue for most of Burton's films.[9][12]

Track listing
  1. "Overture" / "The Big Race" – 3:07
  2. "Breakfast Machine" – 2:36
  3. "Park Ride" – 1:14
  4. "Stolen Bike" – 1:44
  5. "Hitchhike" – 0:56
  6. "Dinosaur Dream" – 0:48
  7. "Simone's Theme" – 1:35
  8. "Clown Dream" – 1:58
  9. "Studio Chase" – 1:24
  10. "The Drive-In" – 2:02
  11. "Finale" – 3:12

"Clown Dream" is also used in the video game Grand Theft Auto V.

The film also features "Burn in Hell" by Twisted Sister and "Tequila" by The Champs.


Pee-wee's Big Adventure opened on August 9, 1985 in the United States in 829 theaters, accumulating $4,545,847 over its opening weekend. The film went on to gross $40,940,662 domestically.[13]

Critical response[edit]

Pee-wee's Big Adventure received generally positive reviews at the time of the film's release,[14] before eventually developing into a cult film.[14] Based on 36 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, Pee-wee's Big Adventure has a 92% overall approval rating.[15] By comparison Metacritic calculated an average score of 47 from 13 reviews collected.[16] The film was nominated with a Young Artist Award for Best Family Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical).[17]

Christopher Null gave positive feedback, calling it "Burton's strangest film."[18] Variety compared Paul Reubens to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton,[19] while Empire called the film "a one-comic masterpiece" and "a dazzling debut" for Burton.[20] Stephanie Zacharek of explained "Everything about Pee-wee's Big Adventure, from its toy-box colors to its superb, hyper-animated Danny Elfman score to the butch-waxed hairdo and wooden-puppet walk of its star and mastermind is pure pleasure."[21] Burton was offered the opportunity to direct Big Top Pee-wee,[22] but had no interest and was already working on his own pet project, Beetlejuice. Positive reviews of Beetlejuice and the financial success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure prompted Warner Bros. to offer Burton the director's helm for Batman.[23]

Roger Ebert never officially reviewed Pee-Wee's Big Adventure but in 1987 it topped his list of Guilty Pleasures and he did mention it in his review of Big Top Pee-wee saying the sequel was not as magical as the first.[24] The second paragraph of that review contrasted the two films explaining what he liked in Big Adventure that he didn't like in Big Top.

Warner Home Video released Pee-wee's Big Adventure on DVD in May 2000. The release included audio commentary by Tim Burton, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman as well as deleted scenes.[25]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Paul Reubens, Tim Burton, audio commentary, 2000, Warner Bros.
  3. ^ Mark Salisbury; Tim Burton (2006). Burton on Burton. Faber and Faber. p. 42. ISBN 0-571-22926-3. 
  4. ^ Salisbury, Burton, p.43–4
  5. ^ Salisbury, Burton, p.47
  6. ^ Famous Movie Locations: Wheel Inn Restaurant from Pee-wee's Big Adventure (Cabazon, California), by Kim Potts, Aug 10, 2010, Moviefone. Retrieved 2011-08-21.
  7. ^ "Filming locations of Pee-wee's Big Adventure". Platial. Archived from the original on 2008-06-05. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  8. ^ a b Salisbury, Burton, p.49
  9. ^ a b Salisbury, Burton, p.48
  10. ^ Fanfare Article
  11. ^ Danny Elfman, audio commentary, 2000, Warner Bros.
  12. ^ excluding Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  13. ^ "Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)". Box Office Mojo ( Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  14. ^ a b Salisbury, Burton, p.50
  15. ^ "Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 2011-10-28. 
  16. ^ "Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985): Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  17. ^ "PAwards for Pee-wee's Big Adventure". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  18. ^ Christopher Null (2005-06-13). "Pee-wee's Big Adventure". Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  19. ^ "Pee-wee's Big Adventure". Variety (Reed Business Information). 1985-01-01. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  20. ^ "Pee-wee's Big Adventure". Empire. Bauer Consumer Media. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  21. ^ Zacharek, Stephanie (10 October 2000). "Pee-wee's Big Adventure". Retrieved 2013-11-28. 
  22. ^ Salisbury & Burton 2006, p. 52
  23. ^ Tim Burton, Batman audio commentary, 2005, Warner Bros.
  24. ^
  25. ^ "Pee-wee's Big Adventure (Widescreen) (1985)". Retrieved 2008-09-22. 

External links[edit]