Pee-wee's Big Adventure was an unparallelled cinematic delight. It brought to attention the previously unknown Tim Burton, who provided the perfect starring vehicle for oddball comedian Pee-wee Herman (in real life Paul Reubens).
The mingling of Burton's kitsch aesthetic with Reuben's bizarre persona turned out to be a perfect match. Big Adventure had a very simple story to go from. Pee-wee wanted to be reunited with his beloved bike. And that basic premise was all it needed. Burton infused the film with a beautiful colour scheme, oddball delights and kooky curiosities, all played to the hilt by the irrepressible Pee-wee.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure turned out to be a surprise box-office smash hit, cementing Burton's place among Hollywood's brightest and eccentric filmmakers.
It took three years for a further instalment to arrive on the big screen. In the interim, Pee-wee got his own TV show, Pee-wee's Playhouse, and dominated the ratings as the host of one of America's most popular children's shows. Reubens took time out from the show in 1988 to make one more film, Big Top Pee-wee.
Big Top came about a year before Reuben's career was damaged after he was caught masturbating in an X-rated movie theatre. The character was effectively retired after that, and although there is talk of a new Pee-wee Herman movie in the making, I'm still not entirely sure it will ever happen.
In the meantime, we do have two of his adventures to fall back on. But after seeing Big Top, you wonder if you really want to see another one. Because the Pee-wee Herman you see here is not quite the one you remember.
It seems that Pee-wee has done a bit of growing up. Where in the first he was content to potter about his pastel coloured mansion playing with Rube Goldberg breakfast making contraptions and copiously caring for his customized bike, here Pee-wee has settled into an almost normal life.
Don't forget...I said almost! Pee-wee's now a farmer. He cultivates hot dog trees, tends to cows that produce chocolate milk, and he even has a talking pig, Vance as a business partner!
He even has a personal life now. He's engaged to prim schoolmistress Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller), and lives in a normal town. Unfortunately, he's forced to share it with some not very nice townsfolk.
But one windy day, fate blows a circus right into Pee-wee's backyard, all filled with curious kooks. First there's ringmaster Mace Montana (Kris Kristofferson, excellent). His wife, Midge, 2 inches tall, with a voice much bigger than she is. And best of all, Gina (Valeria Golino), the beautiful acrobat and star attraction, the woman Pee-wee falls for.
I think the reason Big Top Pee-wee isn't as successful is because it doesn't have a director who's perfectly attuned to the material. The joy of the first film was Tim Burton provided an eccentric outsider's take on life. But this film's director, Randal Kleiser doesn't have that quality. He doesn't occupy Pee-wee's headspace the way Burton was able to.
And the more Pee-wee tries to fit in to our world, the more apart from it he seems. He has no place in our world. He lives in one of his own rules and devisings.
Also with foreknowledge of what was to come for Reubens, you do get a bit uncomfortable watching him 'nail' Winnie, engage in a bit of two-timing, and the film even implies that he loses his virginity to Gina. With him still hosting a children's show at the time of the film's release, that makes it seem all the more unpalatable.
There are occasions where Big Top shows some of the similar quirks that made the first film so endearing. Like Pee-wee's farm animals sleeping in beds. Pee-wee plucking a worm from an apple to feed birds. And all the animals gathered around a table for breakfast. Danny Elfman also provides another whimsical film score to enjoy.
But Big Top never really ignites. It never bursts out with the joy and exuberance that Burton brought to the first one. There is a good cast, but they somehow look a little awkward trying their best to connect with someone as alien as Pee-wee.
Kris Kristofferson probably comes off best by playing the sincerity perfectly straight. But the one real shining light is the underrated Valeria Golino. She brings a passionate charge to the role of Gina. She brings Pee-wee down to earth, but is wise enough not to leave him there for too long. Because she knows he's always at his best when filled with childlike whimsy. She reminds us of the Pee-wee we once knew.
Big Top Pee-wee never inhabits the bizarre, unreal world that made the first film such a treat. I think Pee-wee has become too domesticated. If there is to be another Pee-wee adventure, he can't be kept on a leash. He must be allowed to flourish. That way we can enjoy the company of the Pee-wee we remember so well.