Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1985)

For my next Director Report Card project, I take on the films of Tim Burton. As far as visual stylist go, Burton is probably the most influential director of the last three decades. Burton's trademark gothic style has become so well known that the filmmaker himself is more-or-less a brand name now, slapping a bunch of black-and-white spirals on whatever script comes his way. (And inevitably casting Johnny Depp or his wife in it.) But it wasn't always that way! At one point in time, Burton was an incredibly distinctive voice in the world of summer blockbusters, bringing some refreshing weirdness to stale Hollywood productions.

And because I just can't do a single Report Card these days, I plan on running another Report Card concurrently with Burton's, a very different filmmaker whose career is unavoidably intertwined with Burton's. I'll also throw in a few other reviews for related movies as we come to them. Before we get to any of that, let's go back to the beginning, to a man-boy and his bike...

1. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” is a movie that wouldn’t get made today. Paul Reubens had never headlined a motion picture before, his previous credits limited to bit parts. Based on the strength of “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” an HBO special Reubens wrote and starred in, Warner Brothers decided to take a chance on Reubens’ potentially off-putting trademark character. The project was handed to Tim Burton, an animator who had never directed a feature before. Heck, even the composer was unproven, rock star Danny Elfman making his formal film score debut. That a major studio would be willing to hand seven million dollars, not an enormous amount of money back in 1985 but still a lot more then it is today, over to such untested talent is shocking. The resulting film was weird and unfiltered, a suitably demented kid’s flick. Yet 1985 was a very different time for audiences too. Viewers made the movie into a decent sized hit, jump-starting Burton’s career, paving the way for Reubens’ wildly popular kid’s show, and giving birth to a beloved cult classic.

Paul Reubens and his co-writers, Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, emerged from the world of sketch comedy. This is readily apparent in the film. “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” follows a rough plot outline. Spurned on by the disappearance of his beloved bike, oddball man-child Pee-wee Herman embarks on a country-spanning quest to retrieve it. Along the way he meets an escaped convict, a ghost trucker, a wistful waitress, a singing hobo, an unhelpful tour guide, an angry bull, and a gang of vicious bikers. Eventually, he winds up on the Warner Brothers’ back lot, commits theft, and becomes a folk hero. The story line is loose, tossing the Pee-wee character into as many different scenarios as possible, allowing him to bounce off of divergent types.

“Big Adventure” has two distinct talents coming together. Burton’s career was just getting started but his love of Expressionistic direction, surreal humor, and macabre elements were already apparent. Reubens’ humor, meanwhile, is about skewering social niceties in increasingly absurd ways. Instead of clashing, the two styles compliment one another. Burton’s love of dark whimsy and Paul’s absurdest humor blend together nicely, the oddball characters existing in an off-kilter world. It’s surprising that the two would never collaborate again, save a cameo here and there.

The opening scene tells us everything we need to know about Pee-wee and the world he inhabits. The guffawing man-boy’s home is decorated with old robot toys and bright colors. His breakfast is made by a series of automatons, including one dressed like Abraham Lincoln. While the machines toil away, tossing pancakes onto the ceiling, Pee-wee stretches his face out with masking tape. After eating his breakfast in a diner booth, he waters his lawn with a wacky sprinkler. The second important queue comes when his neighbor is perfectly accepting of Pee-wee’s unorthodox behavior. His other neighbor, another man-child, this one the son of a millionaire, covets Pee-wee’s awesome bike. The title character visits town, shopping at a kooky prank shop, chaining his bike next to a creepy clown statue, conversing with friends that don’t think he’s weird at all. It’s made clear very quickly that “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” doesn’t take place in our world. Instead, it’s set in a denser, wackier universe

By making the world around him just as goofy, the film goes a long way towards negating any of Pee-wee Herman’s off-putting characteristics. The movie is totally comfortable with Herman’s weirdness and treats it matter-of-factually. Pee-wee is a true innocent, an outcast from a sillier planet. His obsession with his bike is like a child’s obsession with a new toy or cartoon show. There’s a good-nature quality to his personality. Even his outbursts seem rooted in an understandable emotional place. That’s also the source of his character arc, which has him becoming less self-centered over the course of his adventure. The combination of the film’s approach and Reubens’ comedic charm makes Pee-wee lovable, annoying laugh and all.

It’s a good thing that Reubens’ trademark creation proves so charming. Pee-wee is our sole point of center in a film that only has a whisper of a plot. The script fills up its run time with unrelated anecdotes and wacky character encounters. First off, Pee-wee runs into an escaped convict, put away for tearing the tag off a mattress. It’s a corny, old joke but the film’s completely commits to selling the gag. Judd Omen plays Mickey the crook on the run completely straight, snarling his dialogue through a thick Clint Eastwood dialect. That a grown-up kid like Pee-wee would bound immediately with such a hardened criminal is a pretty good joke too. How they escape a police checkpoint also takes a silly, odd joke and stretches it as far as it goes, to great effect.

Easily the film’s most infamous moment is its next story beat. While wandering an empty back road, Pee-wee is frightened by the animals of the wild. Out of the darkness and fog, emerges a lone tractor and trailer. The truck is driven by a heavy-set woman who never blinks and barely seems to acknowledge her passenger. She delivers an old fashion ghost story of a car wreck. And then, in a moment that would go down in kindertrauma history, her face expands into a ghoulish caricature. It’s not surprising that kids would be traumatized by this scene. It’s an old fashion urban legend dropped in the middle of a goofy comedy. Watching as an adult, you clearly see it as the hefty punchline it is. As a kid though? Yeah, I can see why it would freak them out.

After turning briefly into a ghost story, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” next stops into more wistful territory. At a dinner, the titular character bounds with a hopeless romantic waitress. Simone, played with just the right mixture of dead-pan humor and genuine pathos by Diane Salinger, wishes to journey to France and fall in love. Her control freak bully of a boyfriend prevents this from happening. She discloses this information while Pee-wee and her are seated inside one of the Cabazon Dinosaurs. The iconic statues, dramatically lit against the velvet night, make a perfect setting for the bittersweet scene. Immediately afterwards, the movie leaps back into madcap mode, Pee-wee comically chased by the jealous boyfriend. We’re here for the chuckles but it’s admirable that the movie reaches for, and gets, other emotions.

After the Legend of Large Marge, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” is probably most famous for its tour of the Alamo. It’s the film at its most deadpan. Pee-wee wants to get his bike back but he has to sit through the entire tour. The tour guide, played breathlessly by Jan Hooks, doesn't overlook a single mundane detail. When he finally finds out the Alamo doesn’t have a basement, the seemingly dull tourists turn to mock him. It’s a great moment of extended humor and a risky one for what’s essentially a kid’s flick. After such a successful gag, the movie goes for another big moment, Pee-wee dancing to “Tequila!” in a bar full of tough gangsters, winning them over with his theatrics. These two scenes together probably represent the funniest moments of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

At least until the finale anyway. The movie goes big for its climax. Finally reunited with his beloved bike, Pee-wee leads a troop of studio security guards on a madcap chase through the Warner Brothers back lot. Tim Burton’s love of American International Pictures comes to the surface here. None of the film sets he wander through are things that were actually being made in 1985. He swings through a beach party musical, a Godzilla movie (whom I just can’t seem to escape this year), a Santa Claus-themed Christmas flick, a Tarzan movie, and a western. With each set he rides through, the journey grows broader, something new being added to the security guards. By the end, a boat is pulling a sleigh containing a kaiju. By the time Pee-wee is swinging on a vine, with his bike, the audience is either rolling their eyes or totally going with it. I, for one.

For its resolution, the movie goes meta. The studio is so impressed by Pee-wee’s love for his bike that they turn his story into a major motion picture. Some of Burton’s cynicism about show business sneaks in as the studio turns Pee-wee’s simple story into a big budget action flick, starring James Brolin in almost-James-Bond mode. In a subtle gag, during the true Pee-wee’s cameo, his obnoxious voice is dubbed over and he continuously glances at the camera. Most movies wouldn’t have earned such a self-congratulatory ending but “Big Adventure” is likable and quirky enough that such a scenario seems perfectly logical in its twisted world. It helps that the film brings back every one of its amusing supporting characters for one final scene.

Aside from the film’s general surreal atmosphere, many of Tim Burton’s trademarks are not immediately obvious. Look a little closer. Before setting out on his wacky journey, Pee-wee wanders down a darkened, rainy aisle. The close, abstract buildings and the huge shadows cast on the wall recall the German Expressionistic films that would be Burton’s main inspiration throughout most of his career. Two nightmare sequences truly display Burton’s self-assured style. In the first, Pee-wee’s bike is eaten by a stop-motion dinosaur, that looks like it step right out of one of Burton’s cartoon. The dark, dramatic lighting also drips with the director’s trademark style. The second one takes this even further. A group of creepy clowns pick the shattered bike up off the road. They wheel it down a dark, stylized hallway before torturing in a cartoon hell. The moment is very funny while maintaining a level of mean-spirited, oddball darkness. Watching moments like this, it’s really easy to see where the director of “Beetlejuice” came from.

Not every joke works. A sequence where Pee-wee suddenly finds himself in a rodeo is belabored and overdone, the kind of trying-to-hard wackiness the rest of the film has no problem with. A sequence with a singing hobo goes on way too long and is far too intentionally annoying, even if it features a perfectly cast Carmen Filpi. Also stumbling over the line from amusing to annoying is Mark Holton as Francis Buxton, Pee-wee’s archenemy. Buxton motivates the plot but actually isn’t in most of the movie, an odd writing decision. Elizabeth Daily is adorable as Pee-wee’s high-pitched love interest but isn’t given much to do. Likewise, their potential romance seems utterly implausible. The movie probably should have shipped Pee-wee and Simone instead. They had much more chemistry.

Danny Elfman’s score is so perfectly Elfman-esque that you can hardly believe it was his first. There are no jaunty tubas but the carnival-gone-mad tone predicts many things Elfman would do in the future. “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” is also the perfect first Tim Burton movie. It was a display for his talent and eye for art design. The humor is not entirely his own yet the film still exist totally within his sensibilities. Burton was just getting started but he already seemed very certain of the type of films he wanted to make. “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” has rightfully earned its cult following, as it’s a delightfully oddball comedy appropriate for (most) family audiences. [Grade: B]

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