Big Top Pee-wee

As it must to all little boys, time has caught up with Pee-wee Herman. Not content to fritter away his life in the throes of the Peter Pan syndrome, Pee-wee shows in his new bigscreen opus, Big Top Pee-wee, that he is growing up.

Two questions come to mind. The first is: How can one tell? True, Pee-wee still looks like a curiously powdered 12-year-old caught in a 6-year-old’s clothes, but there are subtle differences. The second question is: Why?

Why, when Pee-wee Herman has been such a successful commodity in the last few years (hit movie: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, hit TV show: “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”), would creator Paul Reubens tinker with his formula? Perhaps it’s because Reubens, who plays Pee-wee, is leery of getting trapped in an unchanging persona, of Pee-wee becoming just another forgotten fad.

So Big Top Pee-wee brings the goofy character up to date. Here, Pee-wee is a happy-go-lucky gentleman farmer, who lives with his horses, cows, sheep, and his best friend, Vance, a talking pig. Pee-wee is also working on developing some botanical experiments that will, in time, make the world of tomorrow a beter place. (This greenhouse stuff never quite gets integrated into the movie.)

In the opening scenes, we discover that Pee-wee does have a sex life. Well, at least he wants a sex life, which is the first important step. His fiancée, Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller), is more interested in making him egg-salad sandwiches (Yuck!) than in smooching.

Then the circus blows into town. Pee-wee invites the circus folk to stay on his farm, and the ringmaster (Kris Kristofferson, arguably Pee-wee’s unlikeliest possible co-star) gladly accepts. When our manchild spots the trapeze artist Gina Piccalapoopala (Valeira Golino—hubba hubba), he promptly faints dead away.

As the movie tracks Pee-wee’s circus aspirations and his girl trouble, there are some amusing bits. The opening scene of Pee-wee waking up the farm recalls the sight-gagginess of Big Adventure, and a few of the circus act send-ups are similarly inclined. For sheer wigginess, nothing tops an elephant ride taken by Pee-wee and his new sweetheart (accompanied by the strains of what sounds like an old Yma Sumac record, as bellowed by Pee-wee; the music, as in Big Adventure, is by the gifted Danny Elfman).

Big Top Pee-wee inspires the occasional chuckle, but it is not nearly as funny or original as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The script, by Reubens and George McGrath, just doesn’t have enough things going on, and director Randal Kleiser (Grease) is busy picking inappropriate camera angles and alluding to other movies, such as A Place in the Sun (for the big kiss between Pee-wee and Gina), The Gold Rush (a hungry lion suddenly sees Pee-wee as a man-sized sirloin steak), and circus movies of the 1950s (such as The Greatest Show on Earth and Trapeze).

The main problem may be that Pee-wee is funny and outrageous as an anarchic child, not so funny as a sort-of civilized adult. Memo to Paul Reubens: Don’t let Pee-wee grow up. He’s too valuable right where he is.

First published in the Herald, July 24, 1988

Bad sequel. Still, I wonder in retrospect: was Reubens trying to do something interesting/creepy/transgressive by making Pee-wee sort of adult in this movie, or was it just a complete bungling of a franchise? The circus also seems like a misstep; part of the joy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is seeing this freakish individual walking around in the real world, but the circus is already exaggerated, and Pee-wee becomes not as funny. In any case, I’m solid on one thing: Back to the Beach, featuring a Pee-wee Herman cameo but top-lined by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, is a much better movie than this.

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