Appellate Judge Michael Stailey wishes he could call this a hot dog tree, but it's just not.
Pee-Wee joins the circus, but it's no big adventure.
Mmmmm…egg salad…my favorite.
Facts of the Case
Pee-Wee Herman had a farm, EE-I-EE-I-OH.
And on this farm he had a girl, EE-I-EE-I-OH.
And near this farm were crabby neighbors, EE-I-EE-I-OH.
And to this farm there came a storm, EE-I-EE-I-OH.
And just as fast the storm clouds cleared, EE-I-EE-I-OH.
And with this circus came a girl, EE-I-EE-I-OH.
A romance blossomed between the two, EE-I-EE-I-OH.
When this girl learned he was engaged, EE-I-EE-I-UH-OH,
Now he had to win her back, EE-I-EE-I-OH.
Paul Reubens created the character of Pee-Wee Herman as a member of California's legendary improv troupe, The Groundlings. For those who were lucky enough to see this character evolve on stage, ultimately making the leap into a hilarious HBO comedy special in 1981, you are well aware this version of Pee-Wee was quite different from the perpetual man-child who led us on a Big Adventure before settling into his CBS Saturday morning Playhouse.
Pee-Wee began as an adult comedy sketch, not a wholesome children's icon. While some of the supporting characters moved with him to the Playhouse—Jambi, Miss Yvonne, Captain Carl—the original Pee-Wee was a horny adolescent boy trapped in the body of a 1950s children's television host. Come on, he used shoe mirrors to look up girl's skirts. The mailman would break open other people's packages. The hypnotist would use his powers to make girls take their clothes off. It was biting satire of an era everyone clings to as innocent and pure.
I bring this up because one of the biggest criticisms leveled against Big Top Pee-Wee is that the naïve man-child last seen in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure would never, ever act like a horny adolescent. Wake up, folks. This version of the character is closer to the original than either of his other two mainstream performances.
Is Big Top Pee-Wee a great film?
A worthy sequel to Tim Burton and Reubens' original Adventure?
The script is encumbered by unnecessary exposition, the pace is plodding, the supporting characters are weak, the production values are sub-par, and the special effects are horrid (as evidenced by any scene with Midge). But the biggest mistake the production team made was taking Pee-Wee out of his beautifully twisted little universe and dropping him into a bland, angry, depression-era world with no memory of his family, friends, and the life he used to live. Perhaps the behind-the-scenes goings on between 1985's Big Adventure at Warner Bros. and the 1988 shift over to Paramount had something to do with it. Perhaps the absence of Tim Burton and the energy generated between the two quirky geniuses was more disheartening than anyone realized. Whatever the reason, the film falls disappointingly flat.
Should I avoid seeing it?
No. Even poorly done Pee-Wee is better than no Pee-Wee at all. Fans of Paul Reubens should see this film, if only to understand the progression he was attempting to make with the character. It's obvious the artist within wasn't content with simply recreating the same story with a different spin. Unfortunately, Paul didn't surround himself with the right people to pull it off. Actor/TV writer George McGrath did not bring the same eccentric zeal to this tale as previous collaborators Phil Hartman, Michael Varhol, and Bill Steinkellner. Director Randal Kleiser (Grease) and production designer Stephen Marsh have created a big, bold canvas but waste it by painting a drab, uninteresting picture.
Looking for the hidden gems, we do get to see Pee-Wee struggle with the pitfalls of love and the pressures of responsibility, both of which Paul pulls off quite well. Valeria Golino is sweet and funny, bringing forth most of the film's energy and charm. Susan Tyrrell is a stitch in her tiny role of Midge Montana. And we even get early cinematic glimpses of Benicio Del Toro as the Dog-Faced Boy (his film debut) and Dustin "Screech" Diamond as the regressed child version of Deke, Pee-Wee's cranky neighbor. But collectively they are not enough to make the film shine.
Next to Paul's presence, the only other thing that makes this a genuine Pee-Wee film is Danny Elfman's underappreciated musical score. Unable to use his original Pee-Wee themes due to contractual issues with Warner Brothers, Danny went above and beyond the call of duty to create some incredible circus melodies and a beautifully romantic underscore for Pee-Wee's blossoming relationship with Gina. In the hands of anyone else, the project could have easily been a disaster.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, even the transfer is sub-par. The image is soft and grainy, and at times you could swear you were watching the film through a screen door. Oddly enough, the colors remain bright, the flesh tones consistent (except for Paul, who is wearing way too much makeup), and the blacks unwavering. The Dolby 5.1 Surround mix is great, with special attention paid to the circus and animal sounds. The 2.0 mix is a step down, but not by much. The dialogue is clear, Elfman's score is resonant, and the ambient sounds are rich. A French mono track is also included, and if you want a good laugh, listen to these painfully miscast voice actors. They're funnier than the film itself.
Not a single bonus feature to be found on this release, which is shame. I might have appreciated the film more (or at least understand where things went wrong) by hearing a commentary by Paul. Not to be.
As in cooking, there are times when you tinker with the recipe too much and the end result is less than satisfying. The same can be said with an established figure in literature, theatre, or film. Big Top Pee-Wee is a failed experiment to push the boundaries and evolve this beloved character. I can recommend a rental, but this isn't a film you'll find yourself watching multiple times. Credit Paul Reubens for not resting on past success and trying something different.
This court finds no malice in the release of Big Top Pee-Wee. The production team exhibited only the best of intentions, but failed to fully comprehend what makes the character work. My judgment is for prosecution. Paul Reubens is hereby remanded to collaborate with composer Danny Elfman and director Tim Burton to create Pee-Wee's new adventure, reclaiming his creative genius for all the world to see. The rest of the defendants are ordered to have no contact with Reubens or this character ever again. This court is adjourned.
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