Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a touchstone for everyone who lived through the '80s. Not only was it the world’s first extended look at Pee-wee Herman, but it was also Tim Burton's first feature film, and he pulled out all the stops. The movie emphasizes the best of Burton's strange visual style while playing with the ridiculousness that is Pee-wee Herman.
If you haven’t watched this movie in 20 years or so, you probably remember it as a delightful romp, but take another look and you’ll see that for every goofy moment and “au revoir Simone” there’s a traumatic scene to follow.
Chances are, if you watched this movie as a kid, it’s the reason you have an innate fear of clowns, or why you jump straight to violence whenever someone does you wrong. Or maybe you have an obsession with giant heads you've never quite understood. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is common ground for the scared weird kid in all of us.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure is mostly a romp about an eccentric man-child who goes on a trip of self discovery in search of his bike. The tone changes once he accepts a ride from a truck driver named Large Marge.
She gives Pee-wee a ride after he's abandoned on a foggy road in the middle of the night, and on the short ride she tells Pee-wee a story about "the worst accident" she ever saw. Large Marge describes wreckage full of burning bodies, and if that's not scary enough, she reveals her true face: a claymation monster face that's basically the reverse shot of Tim Burton's Beetlejuice.
Pee-wee spends the majority of the film focused on getting his bike back. In fact, the need so consumes his thoughts that the second act ends with a dream in which his bike is kidnapped and tortured by crazy clowns.
The dream begins with the bike being stolen by demonic-looking clowns who break the bike down and take it to an operating room that's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets Duran Duran. The clowns set the bike on fire before a giant claw machine picks it up and literally takes it to Hell.
Before popping into Mario's Magic Shop, Pee-wee chains his bike to what has to be one of the creepiest clowns in cinematic history. Move over Pennywise and Killer Klowns, because this waving, mask-faced robot with an empty smile screams, "I'll eat your soul!"
The nefarious nature of the clown is emphasized once Pee-wee's bike is stolen, and its face changes from the vacant smile to a crooked, maniacal grin.
After escaping from the Warner Bros. lot with his bike, Pee-wee stumbles upon a pet store that's engulfed in flames. Pee-wee, being the hero he is, runs inside and the scene gets even more upsetting.
Although Pee-wee's rescue attempt is a noble effort, the poor pets inside have to rely on a grown man in a red bow tie to make it out. Luckily, Pee-wee saves just about everything in the building, including an especially frightening moment when he runs out of the fire with handfuls of snakes. Unfortunately the fish don't make it because, after all, Pee-wee is just one man.