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The Man Who Never Grew Up

In 1985, as movies shifted toward telling younger stories, one man became the unexpected poster child for arrested development. His name was Pee-wee.

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Paul Reubens passed away on July 30 at the age of 70. In remembrance, The Ringer is recirculating this article from our Return to Summer Blockbuster Season series.

1985 was a teenage wasteland at the movies. In a year defined by Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club, the not-so-secret theme of commercial American cinema was growing pains—the exciting, terrifying (and of course sexually tantalizing) transition from innocence to experience mapped out along a series of high school hallways.

“I’m not crazy about movies about teenagers,” wrote Pauline Kael in 1984, grudgingly acknowledging Hollywood’s youth movement without capitulating to it. If the decade’s sudden pileup of adolescence-inflected dramas, rom-coms, slasher flicks, and even action movies (all together now: “Wolverines!”) served as a bit of a beachhead against the kind of cloying, family-friendly entertainment being pumped out by studios in a post-E.T. moment, these movies still weren’t necessarily signifiers of rebellion. At the end of Back to the Future, instead of riding his motorcycle out of town Marlon Brando style, Marty McFly glances happily at the brand-new Range Rover in the family garage.

1985’s true born-to-be-wild hero—and its most provocative poster boy for the concept of arrested development—was a figure as far removed from John Hughes as humanly possible: Pee-wee Herman. “You don’t want to get mixed up with a guy like me,” says Paul Reubens’s bow-tie-wearing alter ego to Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) halfway through Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, just before he blows town in search of his stolen bike, an easy rider on the road to nowhere. “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel. So long, Dott.”

The words evoke the antiheroic rhetoric of James Dean, the patron saint of beautiful, misunderstood teenagers; the pinched, nasal delivery, however, undermines the sentiment. Like everything else about Pee-wee, the voice is a parody of prepubescent petulance, an affectation that’s also an alienation effect by a comedian with a gift for scrambling his audience’s expectations and prejudices. The wonderful contradiction of Pee-wee is that he’s so transparent about his strangeness, at once blissfully oblivious and slyly self-aware in a way that places the onus of the joke on the audience. His catchphrase, meanwhile, encapsulates the lovable, maddening ambiguity of his persona—it’s the proverbial riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma, except delivered with the taunting confidence of an overstimulated 6-year-old. “I know you are … but what am I?”

The question of exactly what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is is worth asking. As with most classic movies, there isn’t really one single answer. For Warner Bros., the film was a relatively thrifty ($7 million) investment in a cult character whose origins in Los Angeles’s improv-based comedy underground belied his quasi-mainstream appeal; originally conceived as a failed stand-up comedian unable to tell a joke, Pee-wee gradually evolved into an avatar of arrested development, a man-child whose whispery sexual innuendos would be toned down in a pivot toward all-ages entertainment.

For Reubens, the project represented the proverbial brass ring he’d just missed grabbing after almost making the cut for Saturday Night Live in the early ’80s, as well as an opportunity to indulge his cinephilic fetishes: The first draft of the screenplay was styled as a remake of Walt Disney’s plucky-orphan story Pollyanna (1960) before mutating into an homage to Italian neorealist auteur Vittorio De Sica’s canonical masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948). And for Tim Burton—a Disney animation department prodigy riding a pair of acclaimed, stylistically idiosyncratic short films to It Kid status—it was a foot in the door, the first leap toward becoming one of the most commercially successful and aesthetically influential directors of his era.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was written by Reubens, Michael Varhol, and the late Phil Hartman, whose love of showbiz satire informed its flurries of self-reflexive satire, especially the climactic sequence in which the hero finds himself attending the Hollywood premiere of a movie based on his adventures—a gently absurdist turn confirming the film as a starry-eyed wish-fulfillment fantasy. Working from a copy of industry guru Syd Field’s how-to manual Screenplay, the trio split the difference between by-the-book deference and unbridled invention, embracing a tried-and-true road movie structure while leaving plenty of room for the kind of detours, digressions, and shtick that were endemic to Reubens’s act. “It’s a 90-minute film, it’s a 90-page script,” Reubens explained at a South by Southwest panel in 2011. “On page 30, I lose my bike, on page 60 I find it. … It’s literally exactly what they said to do in the book.”

In Bicycle Thieves, a cash-strapped father searches desperately through the crowded streets of Rome for his stolen two-wheeler with his anxious young son in tow. Not only does the man need the bicycle to earn a living, but the vehicle’s disappearance transforms it into a potent structuring absence—a cruel symbol of a society in which status and security have become elusive, if not lost forever. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure doesn’t style itself nearly so seriously, but there is still a hint of class critique in the rivalry between Pee-wee and his archenemy Francis Buxton (Mark Holton), man-children who exist on the same bizarre infantile wavelength but are differentiated by their relationship to material reality.

Francis is a spoiled brat who bathes in an Olympic-sized swimming pool and has been raised by indulgent, old-money parents to believe that he can buy whatever he wants: “My father says everything’s negotiable,” he sneers in a fit of covetous envy. But Pee-wee, whose lo-fi, ingeniously mechanized home suggests a tactile, three-dimensional cartoon canvas, has a pure and loving relationship to his apparently hand-crafted toys, including and especially his spectacularly accessorized bike, which he believes to be literally and figuratively priceless. The bike is not a possession, but an extension of his personality, one that Pee-wee pilots through Burton’s beautifully skewed, color-coded frames with the same serene, slapstick velocity of Elliott shooting the moon in E.T.

It’s this dovetailing between deep, broad archetypal ideas of happiness and fulfillment and an ad hoc surrealism encompassing everything from urban-legend ghost stories to Texan exceptionalism to biker-gang chic that gives Pee-wee’s Big Adventure its earnest, flamboyant sense of personality and drive. In a moment of sleek, heavy-metal special effects, Burton’s virtuoso inventory of campy, retro-’50s style was an outlier; where the films of Steven Spielberg sought to awaken the audience’s inner child, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure plied it with the aesthetic equivalent of Pop Rocks and Coke, integrating puppets, Rube Goldberg toys, and Claymation.

As another mid-’80s icon told us, there is a fine line between stupid and clever, and Pee-wee towed it as nimbly as Airplane!. Besides finding cameo roles for the members of Reubens’s stock company—including Hartman and fellow ex-Groundling Jan Hooks—the film uses the conventions of the quest narrative to propel Pee-wee from his small-town comfort zone toward San Antonio, where a psychic predicts he’ll locate his bicycle. In shamelessly hewing to the contours of the hero’s journey, Reubens and Burton get to have it both ways, kidding predictability while simultaneously embracing it, telegraphing its happy ending while still earning it one vignette at a time.

In the same year, Albert Brooks’s brilliant Lost in America played similarly with the fish-out-of-water idea, stranding its economically insulated yuppies in flyover country and watching their personalities unravel. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is more openhearted in its picaresque vision of the U.S. as a playground: If it resembles another movie of its era, it’s Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s 1986 directorial debut True Stories, a candy-coated musical-comedy exulting in the imagery and ideology of what Greil Marcus famously called “the old, weird America.”

Weird is Burton’s wheelhouse, and the movie’s best moments reflect his love of the macabre: Pee-wee’s nighttime encounter with the roughneck trucker Large Marge (the indelible Alice Nunn) plays like a miniaturized Twilight Zone episode right down to the twist ending, while its sweetly spooky special effects anticipate the playful grotesquerie of Beetlejuice. Always temperamentally aligned with outsiders—which is why he did such a good job with Batman—Burton empathizes with Pee-wee’s self-willed distance from “normal” people while continually finding ways to weave him into the patchwork communities he passes by en route to San Antonio, including a jubilant sequence at a biker bar where Reubens wins over a group of skeptical, leather-jacketed patrons by vamping to the Champs’ “Tequila.” (Twenty years later, Greg Mottola would pay subtle tribute in the Superbad scene in which Michael Cera nervously performs “These Eyes” for a bunch of tough guys at a house party.) The scene is Reubens at his best: physically agile, freakishly committed, and endearingly sweet not in spite of his seeming disconnect from reality but because of it. If you find Pee-wee Herman annoying, it’s because he acts like he’s in his own world; if you find him lovable, it’s because he’s willing to invite others into that sphere to share it with him.

A modest but real box office hit, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was also a critical rallying point: There is an urban legend that Kael tried to get the New York Film Critics Circle to vote it for Best Film in 1985 to block Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. It also gave Reubens the impetus to fully rebrand Pee-wee as being, you know, for kids; while Burton did not contribute to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the series built on the film’s visual style, as did 1988’s stand-alone, circus-themed sequel Big-Top Pee-wee. (Reubens would reunite with the director on Batman Returns, playing the father of Danny Devito’s psychopathic Oswald Cobblepot in a prologue whose swift, fairy-tale compression represents an apex of the director’s storytelling skills.)

That Reubens would be reduced to a talk-show punch line and more or less exiled from Hollywood following his arrest at an adult movie theater in 1991 can’t help but recast his legacy as one of partially squandered potential; rumors of various Pee-wee–themed projects (including one with Valley of the Dolls moments” and another modeled on The Wizard of Oz) continued until 2016’s Netflix-produced, Judd Apatow–branded Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, a deliberately silly, not-so-subtly homoerotic comedy costarring Joe Manganiello as himself and littered with references to the title character’s cinematic past. Among the film’s many running jokes is the idea that Pee-wee, who was already a figure out of time in 1985, hasn’t aged at all in the intervening three decades, instead remaining eternally preserved in the same not-a-boy, not-yet-a-man stasis that made him such an unlikely icon. It’s the right call: The character endures because his inability to change is its own state of grace.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.