Monday, April 18, 2011


The tale of everyone's favorite manchild and his cross-country search for his beloved bicycle is a perfect film, really, and of a piece with my favorite Tim Burton films. Like those films (Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber etc.), Burton's sensibility is not the main auteurist spirit. With Pee-Wee Herman's stock riding so high at the time this film was made, there was pretty much no way the film's director was going to commandeer the thing with an over-riding vision. But by all accounts the collaboration was one of equanimity: there're many of what would become Burton's familiar touches throughout the film (the grotesque stop-motion bits would certainly bloom in Beetlejuice, for example), and yet Burton's gift for directing actors lends itself well to the chaos surrounding Pee-Wee.

Mention should be made of the script (co-written by Phil Hartman) and the uniformly splendid cast, from Judd Omen's intense turn as a fugitive from justice to Elizabeth Daily's weirdly smitten bike shop clerk to Alice Nunn's sensational cameo as the mysterious trucker Large Marge. The genius in this road movie is that each of these characters has a completely different relationship with Pee-Wee; some adore him, some hate him, some develop a grudging respect for him, and still others are crazier than he is.

Many of Burton's recurring collaborators began working with him here, including composer Danny Elfman and cast members Paul Reubens, Jan Hooks, and Diane Salinger. (Burton's CalArts classmate, animator Rick Heinrichs, made his feature debut with Burton here as well.) But the conflation of talent around this movie was a once-in-a-lifetime group, every member of which is firing on all cylinders (even James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild lend their celebrity to the film's divine final scene, giving themselves over to the joke completely). Most remarkably, it's all so damn seamless, everyone finding stake in this berzerk and hilarious story of a boy and his bicycle. Rarely do star vehicles feel like such a powerful group effort while offering such a warm and hilarious showcase for the presence at its center.

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