“I meant to do that.”
A director’s first feature film is always a momentous occasion for both auteur and audience; it can make or break a career. Perhaps it is fitting then that a director such as Tim Burton, whose works are known for their whimsical imagery and wacky humor, would choose “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” a film that defies, and indeed pokes fun at, the mundane through brilliant one-liners and zany sight gags, for his debut. Told from the perspective of the man-child known to the world as Pee-wee Herman, the film is at once subversive and charming, all the while lulling us under its endearing spell.
“I know you are, but what am I?”
Stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence, Pee-wee Herman was originally conceived by actor/comedian Paul Reubens during his stint with The Groundlings comedy troupe. The character quickly acquired a rabid following and Reubens eventually spun the bow-tied lad off into his own full-length stage show. The show, which was of a decidedly more mature nature than the subsequent Pee-wee films and television show, was a wild success and eventually led to Reubens securing a development deal with Warner Bros. Co-written with former Groundlings member and future SNL alum Phil Hartman, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” followed standard road movie conventions and clichés, but put a decidedly unique spin on the situations Pee-wee found himself in.
With a screenplay such as the one given to Pee-wee on his first big screen outing, finding the right director would be essential to capturing the spirit and tone of the written word. With an estimated budget of six million dollars, it would take a talented director to make such a small budget work for a film filled with such grand cinematic ideas. Based on the advice of actress and “Frankenweenie” star Shelley Duvall, Reubens selected Tim Burton to bring his unique creation to the silver screen. Paired with a script that rivaled a classic Marx Bros. comedy for sheer number of laughs per scene and the vivid imagination of Burton, the film went into production in 1984. While such a shoestring budget and meager production values may have intimidating another director, Burton used these limitations to his full advantage, creating a film with a wholly unique sense of reality, even among the rest of Burton’s oeuvre.
Both a creative and financial success, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” marked a stunning debut for director Burton that heralded the arrival of a new visionary to Hollywood’s stale backlot of journeymen and ne’er-do-wells. And the amazing thing is, of course, he was just getting started.
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It’s like you’re unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting…
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